SAG, AFTRA face a race to the table

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The feud between SAG and AFTRA is nothing new. But the decision Saturday by AFTRA's national board to suspend its joint bargaining agreement with SAG has heightened the bad blood between the actors unions to Hatfield and McCoy status.

AFTRA's decision to forgo the so-called Phase One agreement and go it alone on the TV-theatrical contract, which covers 44,000 members of both unions, heightens the uncertainty for an industry that is still recovering from the 100-day writers strike that ended in February and wary of another labor shutdown. Among the most basic questions is which actors union will sit down first for formal talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

"You have two competing unions now, and who's going to go first is important," one SAG member said.

The second union to begin talks on a new contract with the AMPTP could find itself facing a tougher battle, depending on how much its proposals are different than those put forward -- and potentially agreed upon -- by whichever union negotiates first. AFTRA has been pushing for early talks all along, so it would come as no surprise if they were first to the table.

Both unions on Saturday formally approved their initial proposals and both on Sunday said that they would be getting in touch with the AMPTP within the next few days.

"Informal discussions are happening and we expect to set a timeline soon," AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said.

SAG executive director and chief negotiator Doug Allen said the union plans to call the AMPTP today.

"We've discussed it informally with them," Allen said. "This is what we were waiting for to get started on bargaining: To get this process finished and for the input of the members who were all participating."

The AMPTP issued a statement saying it was pleased that AFTRA is ready to start formal talks and is determined to "work hard and bargain reasonably" to avoid another harmful strike in the industry. The statement made no mention of SAG.

Both unions, however, probably will wait until talks between IATSE and the AMPTP, which are set to begin April 7, are complete.

AFTRA's eleventh-hour decision to suspend joint bargaining with SAG came Saturday, when both actors unions were set to vote on the proposal package its members have been working on since February. Just last Tuesday and Wednesday, members of both unions' wages and working conditions committees met to put finishing touches on the package. Word out of those meetings was that both worked amicably side by side.

But signs of a rift might have been seen in the different way that Allen and Reardon characterized those talks. Allen described the meetings as "energetic" and "exciting."

"It was productive. It was enthusiastic. It was unifying," Allen said. "It was amazing and inspiring and it has been completely repudiated by AFTRA."

Reardon painted a different picture.

"There's always a certain amount of tension in those rooms between participants," she said. "There was a good working sense, but it was not without its moments, tensions or disagreements."

The straw that broke the camel's back Saturday, Reardon said, was the anticipated decision by the cast of the daytime soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" to circulate a petition to decertify AFTRA representation. Several weeks ago, members of the cast approached SAG about issues they had regarding AFTRA's representation.

"They're fed up that AFTRA has not taken care of their needs and concerns and that AFTRA has not assisted them in getting money owed to them," said SAG national board member Anne-Marie Johnson, also an AFTRA member. "They're fed up with their health and retirement package, and they know SAG will assist if they could."

Johnson said the actors were told to bring it up with AFTRA because SAG taking jurisdiction over the "Bold" actors would be considered "raiding."

Allen said the guild assured AFTRA it would not assist the soap opera's cast in their efforts to organize with SAG.

"The timing of this was transparently obvious," Allen said. "It was incredibly cynical and calculated. It was a flimsy excuse. SAG was never intent on raiding or representing the soap opera."

But Reardon said for AFTRA it was clear that SAG planned a raid. She cautioned that the decision to stop jointly bargaining was not just because of "Bold."

"We had learned about 'The Bold and the Beautiful' situation but found out quite later in the game that the situation was much more dire than we first knew," Reardon explained. She cited other jurisdictional issues that she said made up a "planned campaign to discredit AFTRA."

For 27 years, SAG and AFTRA have negotiated jointly the TV-theatrical contract — which includes primetime and cable programs — with the AMPTP. But last July, SAG pushed to change that partnership and institute bloc voting on the negotiating committee rather than the usual 50-50 split.

SAG backpedaled on that decision in February, deciding to work toward keeping the relationship with AFTRA intact. Despite that, things have continued to sour between the two unions, and both rarely have been on the same page over what and when to negotiate with the studios.

Separately Saturday, AFTRA's board unanimously approved the tentative agreements it has reached on the Network Television Code and Sound Recording Code. Those pacts will now go to the members for ratification.
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