SAG's endgame is still a mystery

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He's back: Juan Carlos Gonzalez, the federal mediator who is the same neutral party brought in by the AMPTP last year before the writers strike, may soon play a similar role in the stand-off between the studios and SAG.

This time, it's SAG making the request, and lawyers for the various production companies and AMPTP members met Tuesday and Wednesday to consider the request but issued no decision.

There are bigger questions hanging over the festering stalemate, however. The foremost is: Do SAG's leaders really think the mediator is going to break the logjam? The resolution the guild's executive board passed Sunday gives the go-ahead for its bargaining panel to go to the membership for strike authorization in the event that mediation fails.

SAG president Alan Rosenberg — who strongly opposed calling in a mediator when the possibility was raised by SAG board members in August, then argued against it over the weekend — has gone silent, other than releasing a statement Sunday that said the union hopes mediation will "move the process forward."

SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen is now busy in San Francisco in a high-stakes trial over marketing money between the NFL and his former employer, the NFL Players Assn. Rosenberg was in meetings all day Wednesday and declined to comment.

The mediator ploy could simply be a case of SAG exhausting every possible route to a solution — or it could be a way to avoid a potentially embarrassing rejection of fighting on by the membership.

Perhaps most ominously, bringing in a mediator could shift the timing of a potential strike to Oscar season, when its impact would be most severe.

"I do think the SAG membership would be easily galvanized," one member said. "SAG members do not want to take the deal on the table."

Optimists hoping Gonzalez or any other mediator can do anything don't have much to base their hopes on. A licensed attorney, Gonzalez has meager experience in the entertainment industry and was less than effective in the WGA-AMPTP negotiations.

"The new-media residuals issues are extremely complicated," Loeb & Loeb industry labor lawyer Ivy Kagan Bierman said. "I just don't think someone outside the industry with little or no experience dealing with these types of issues is going to be all that useful."

There is some thought that just having Gonzalez in the room may be enough to melt the ice between the actors union and the studios.

"It's more a symbolic gesture than anything else," one national board member said. "You would hope that when the mediator gets in the room there are enough level heads in there who will say, 'This is the last shot we have.' "

But Kagan Bierman isn't sure it's the right approach for the union.

"I don't think following the same approach as the WGA is necessarily going to be productive in this situation," she said. "I think the better approach would be to call upon the services of someone with knowledge and experience in the entertainment industry that is respected by both sides."

Gonzalez did preside over a few WGA negotiations meetings. But when the writers called their strike in the beginning of November and then agreed to return to the bargaining table later that month, it wasn't the mediator in the room trying to get the sides together: It was CAA's Bryan Lourd. Disney's Bob Iger and News Corp.'s Peter Chernin also took turns facilitating meetings between the WGA and AMPTP.

Entertainment labor attorney Scott Witlin said SAG's current strategy could be "a face-saving measure" that would allow the guild to take the offer, which has been on the table since talks broke off on June 30.

In a best-case scenario, the mediator could convince the AMPTP to tweak its offer, for example, by dropping a proposal to eliminate the union's force majeure protection. That would enable SAG's leadership to take the current offer to the membership and in part justify the $26 million in raises (the studios' estimate) lost during the past three months.

As for the awards season scenario, that option bears significant risks.

"It's a dangerous strategy," Witlin said. "That union is being supported by the stars. And those stars are the ones nominated. They could be undermining the strongest pillars of their union."

One studio executive agreed. "SAG would have to consider what the reputation of their actors is if they're going on strike during a recession," the exec said. "All the big-name actors will have to be out on the picket lines, and that's not going to sit too well with people who are losing their jobs and houses across the country."

One SAG board member said the awards season was brought up in discussions, but it was not "the express reason" to bring in the mediator.

"My very sincere hope is that we get a deal before the end of the year," the member added. "If it does drag out and it does get into awards season, it increases our leverage. If we do get into it, it's kind of a bonus, but it's not the aim of doing this."

One studio exec said the AMPTP also wants a deal despite the fact that its members are now saving millions since the actors' contract expired. But the studios are not likely to start from scratch.

"Our view is that this offer comes in conjunction with a lot of other negotiations that preceded other guilds," the exec said. "It's shaped by other negotiations, and that shape of history can't be lost.

"We've come a long way from where we all began more than a year ago," the exec added. "For people to say, 'Why can't you just negotiate?' We have been, with this guild and others, and have gone very far down the road." (partialdiff)
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