SAG, AMPTP may need mediation

Talks at bitter standstill after guild rejection of 'final offer'

Bryan Lourd, break out the good china and embossed invitations.

With TV-theatrical contract negotiations between SAG and the AMPTP at a bitter standstill, both sides may be looking for a third party to pass out the olive branches. Perhaps the CAA partner will -- as he did to forward labor peace during the WGA strike last year -- once again bring powerful parties together to coax an extra dose of compromise from the players in the room.

After three full days of bargaining, the AMPTP on Thursday delivered to SAG its "last, best and final offer," which was summarily rejected by the union's board two days later by a vote of 73% to 27%. The new contract offer included a few gives on the producers' side and an acceptance by SAG negotiators of a deal more in line with the one ratified by AFTRA, the WGA and the DGA last year.

But "like Lucy pulling the football away," as one SAG board member put it, the AMPTP altered one crucial demand.

The fatal sticking point, made explicit by the SAG board, is the proposed end date of the new agreement. The AMPTP is insisting on a full three-year window that starts upon SAG's ratification of the contract. That would place its expiration date sometime in spring 2012 or later.

SAG wants the new deal to expire June 30, 2011, which would bring it in line with the end dates of the WGA, DGA and AFTRA contracts up in May and June and amplify the collective bargaining power of all the unions as a result.

The previous contract expired June 30, 2008.

Positive outside influence on the talks could take several forms. SAG leadership could communicate with studio execs outside of the AMPTP negotiating sessions. A relatively neutral outside party like Lovett could intervene (a federal mediator failed to broker a resolution in November).

SAG's sister guilds could be inspired to weigh in more heavily, as SAG did for the WGA during its negotiations and 100-day walkout.

Or high-profile SAG A-listers who came out publicly last year against a strike authorization, such as George Clooney or Tom Hanks, could put pressure on friends in the studio ranks to push their offer into a shape that the SAG board could approve.

It's unknown whether anyone has proactively been invited to step in thus far. SAG president Alan Rosenberg and former chief negotiator Doug Allen claimed to have engaged in such behind-the-scenes talks during the stalemate last year.

The back-channel diplomacy tactic, however, implies a split in the conglom community over the wisdom of pushing a hard line on the end date. Those who rely more heavily on feature product could be persuaded to push a more generous offer back across the table, since feature production is slowly grinding to a stop.

Should any of these circumstances persuade the studios to revert to the June 30, 2011, expiration date, approval by the SAG board would be all but assured.

Meanwhile, negotiations for a new commercials contract between SAG and AFTRA, bargaining jointly, and the JPC, negotiating for the ad industry, launched Monday in New York. The first two weeks of discussions scheduled to hammer out that agreement, which is nearly two-thirds the value of the TV-theatrical deal, provide a convenient window for the back-channel negotiations to have a chance to gain some momentum.

But added complications could arise if the commercials contract discussions don't go any better than have the TV-theatrical talks. In that scenario, a strike authorization vote could be in play for one or the other, but unlikely both, of the negotiations.

Beyond that, any actual walkout would first require substantial fence-mending within the guild to foster the kind of determined solidarity necessary to push back hard enough to force changes in the deal offer. Though union members -- hardliners and moderates, alike -- are now pretty much unified in their disgust for the current offer, internal rifts over what step to take next remain hot to the touch.

The Hollywood division of SAG has a board meeting scheduled for March 9, and there is a full plenary on the books for April. But should anything budge on the TV-theatrical front, an emergency confab could presumably be enacted quickly.
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