SAG closes in on strike vote

Membership approval will be sought Wednesday

NEW YORK -- SAG is set to move a step closer to striking.

The guild's negotiating committee is expected to approve a measure Wednesday asking for the rank and file's approval for a work stoppage, and the measure probably will pass, according to SAG sources with knowledge of the meeting.

A spokeswoman for the guild confirmed that negotiating committee would meet but said she did not know the meeting's agenda.

MembershipFirst -- the dominant political party in Hollywood that favors a hard-line stance toward producers -- recently lost its majority status on the guild's national board to a consortium of factions in Hollywood, New York and the regional branches that favor a more moderate approach. However, MembershipFirst still controls nine of the 13 votes on the negotiating committee, making the measure's passage likely, if not certain. During the summer, the guild's national executive committee gave the negotiating committee the authority to seek strike authorization.

The move toward a strike comes after guild national president Alan Rosenberg and national executive director Doug Allen sent a letter Monday to three top executives -- Disney's Robert Iger, News Corp.'s Peter Chernin and AMPTP president Nick Counter -- asking to reopen negotiations. That offer was rebuffed by Counter, who is the chief negotiator for the major studios and production companies.

Allen issued a statement Tuesday about Counter's rejection: "We are disappointed to hear that the employers and their AMPTP representatives are refusing to engage in the process necessary to complete a deal. We do not believe that their rejection of our reasonable request is in the best interests of our members or the industry. Our national negotiating committee will be meeting later this week to consider management's response."

Several more steps would have to happen before a work stoppage would take effect, but one national board member said the fact that guild leaders would consider a strike while the national economy is foundering shows the desperate shape they are in after months of negotiations, which have yet to produce a deal.

"The only people that seem to be oblivious to the condition of the United States of America right now and the financial situation that we're in are Doug Allen, Alan Rosenberg, and MembershipFirst," said the source. "The idea that we would be going on strike now is absurd in Fellini proportions."

"I've only been at this a little while, but I've never heard a union, specifically the Screen Actors Guild, sitting down going, 'Hmm, is this economically a sound time to go out on strike or not?'" said one national board and MembershipFirst member. "If that were the case, I guess you'd hope that every contract year was a healthy economic year."

Entertainment labor attorney Scott Witlin of Akin Gump in Los Angeles agreed, pointing out that SAG's leadership is doing this before the first board meeting with its new members.

"This is a direct result of the fact that MembershipFirst has lost power and they're trying to act as a lame duck and pass something that the new leadership would not authorize," said Witlin, who represents mostly producers in labor and employment contracts. "It's just a cynical attempt by the group that was in office to set policy beyond their terms of office."



If the measure passes, a referendum would be sent to members; 75% would have to approve the authorization before the national board could call for a work stoppage. A simple majority of the board would then have to approve a strike. Although the new board will not be officially seated until the third week of October, it is doubtful that a referendum could be sent out to members and voted on before then.

It also is uncertain whether three-fourths of guild members would support a strike. Not only are many still recovering from the effects of the 100-day writers strike, which stretched from November-February, but film production across the country -- which had been booming because of generous state tax incentives -- has slowed in regions outside of Hollywood because of the stalled contract talks.

Additionally, in the recent election, members voted out many board members who sit on the negotiating committee, including its chair David Jolliffe, in favor of the challenging faction, Unite for Strength. The members of the negotiating committee, however, remained unchanged because technically they still are in negotiations on a new contract.

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers issued its final offer to the guild June 30. SAG made a counteroffer that was rejected. Since then, Rosenberg and Allen have maintained that they have had informal, back-channel discussions with studio heads, but guild sources and sources close to producers say those conversations have not taken place.

Witlin said the studios hold the cards right now.

"If they get strike authorization, almost certainly the (AMPTP's) final offer comes off the table, and when SAG comes back, asking for a deal, anything that the employer will give them will be a worse deal," he said. "If they don't get strike authorization, then they've completely squandered their bargaining power because management will know there is no strike, and they'll force them to take a deal."

SAG polled its members in September on whether they wanted the negotiating committee to push for a better contract or accept the AMPTP's offer "as is." The result was 87%, or 8,987 members, voted to keep talking. However, of the 103,630 paid-up SAG members who were sent the poll, only about 10% responded.

Andrew Salomon is news editor at Back Stage East. Leslie Simmons in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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