Uncertainty the star as strike casts a shadow over SAG Awards

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As actors gather to celebrate the 14th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards on Sunday, they do so in an environment fraught with tension.

SAG has benefited from its close relationship with the WGA and has obtained a waiver allowing writers to work on the awards show, sidestepping a situation in which SAG members might have had to blackball their own awards to avoid crossing picket lines. But the guild is about to proceed with major negotiations and a potential strike of its own.

"We have a number of contracts, and they expire at various times during the year," says SAG national executive director Doug Allen. "They include basic cable and animation and the commercials contract, which is up at the end of October. And the one that gets the most attention: the theatrical contract."

That contract, the Codified Basic Agreement with the networks and studios represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, is due to expire June 30. SAG's leadership is now taking preliminary steps before it begins negotiations.

"We are just starting the process of prioritizing our issues," says SAG president Alan Rosenberg. "We have wages-and-working-conditions caucuses, where our members all come and give us their issues, and then we form a wages-and-working-conditions committee and prioritize. We have to go through that before we are ready for negotiations."

When SAG will start negotiating is still up in the air, and the guild has given no indication that it might begin early like the DGA did en route to making a deal in only six days of bargaining. "There are a number of possibilities as to when negotiating will begin," Allen notes. "I don't want to get too specific."

Rosenberg lists three major areas of concern to members: new media, DVD residuals and "forced endorsements." "That's where they are insinuating commercials into network television and basic-cable shows and extolling the virtues of products within the shows -- and making actors do it. Our members are not getting compensated for that."

But it is new media that will likely be the biggest issue in the upcoming negotiations, just as it is for the writers. And for those who question why the guilds are taking such a stand on a revenue stream that is still relatively small, Rosenberg points to SAG's previous negotiations.

"Look at what happened with DVD residuals," he says. "When any new media come into play, the AMPTP always asks us to work with them and grow the business, and (they) say that when they understand what is profitable, they will get back and improve our formula. And they never do. They didn't with DVD and basic cable. DVD was very important to actors and writers, and we haven't had an improvement in the formula since 1984," when the home video formula was first negotiated.

According to Rosenberg, agreeing to a deal whereby actors would take residuals on only 20% of DVD revenues rather than the full 100% has cost guild members $4.5 billion.

The AMPTP disputes that number, and a spokesman says the royalty-based home video formula has generated more than $1 billion in residuals for SAG members in the past 10 years alone.

But Rosenberg says history is guiding SAG's hard-line stance on new media. "That is the big focus for us," he says. "Putting a fair formula in place so we don't get stuck with (a bad deal), as we did with DVD."

Rosenberg has made no bones about his passionate support of the writers and his belief that they will stick it out until they get a deal they believe is fair. He has had many meetings with WGA West president Patric Verrone, since both were elected at around the same time (Rosenberg was first elected in September 2005), and has also attended some of the negotiations himself.

"We have had an extraordinarily friendly relationship, and we have common interests," he says. "They also realized the great benefit of the SAG Awards to our guild: It brings a lot of money into our coffers and into the (nonprofit SAG) foundation, and actors will be relying on that foundation, certainly, if we find ourselves in the same situation (as the WGA) when our contract expires."

The WGA should benefit from the awards show, too, as Rosenberg says he is sure the strike will be mentioned repeatedly. "I am certainly not going to ignore it," he says.

What makes the current negotiating environment different is this willingness of the unions to work together. The WGA and the DGA have publicly shared information, and Rosenberg says his union has done the same thing.

"This is unprecedented in our memory," he says. "We have never collaborated or shared information before -- certainly not on the level of the past two years. The writers guild came to our offices and shared information, all the research they had done, months before the negotiation and before their contract expired."   

For Rosenberg, it is baffling that the unions have not collaborated this closely in the past and that they have agreed to bargain at different times, rather than using their collective leverage by bargaining together.

"Since Nick Counter became president of the AMPTP, they have insisted that we engage in 'pattern bargaining,'" Rosenberg continues, referring to a form of negotiation whereby management will do a deal with one union and then use that agreement as a basis for subsequent deals. "It has never worked to our benefit. They've insisted that we not have contracts that expire at the same time and not negotiate at the same time. They have also said we can't talk to each other. They always said it would be 'collusion' -- and that is absurd -- but our unions bought into it. Shame on us and our leadership."

The AMPTP says no claims of collusion have ever been made.

Despite those fighting words, Rosenberg says he is hopeful a deal will be reached. For one thing, he says he respects Counter and personally finds him "a charming man."

Asked what SAG will do if the WGA is still on strike when SAG's own deal runs out, he adds, "I am always optimistic. I think they will arrive at a deal before then, and that is my hope and my prayer because this is a tough time and a time of great sacrifice and suffering."
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