Union disunity: SAG-AFTRA schism widens

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SAG national executive director Doug Allen has touched off another firestorm in the ongoing battle between his union and AFTRA with a 12-page report that details significant differences between guild and AFTRA contracts for basic-cable programs.

Using the pacts from three AFTRA shows — FX's "Dirt," Lifetime's "Army Wives" and IFC's "The Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman" — Allen indicated that pay disparities range from 13%-53% for day players and series regulars alike.

"Lowering the bar through competition between unions is rarely a good idea," Allen wrote in his report, which came in the form of a letter in the current issue of Screen Actor, the guild's quarterly magazine. "Doing so now is particularly ill-considered and sends a divisive message to producers as we prepare for landmark negotiations in 2008."

SAG and AFTRA bargain jointly for their two most lucrative contracts: the one for network TV and film and the one for commercials.

For the past few years, national president Alan Rosenberg and members of SAG's Hollywood Division have charged that AFTRA was undercutting guild contracts in the realm of basic cable. It is unclear whether the contractual differences cited by Allen pertain to all of AFTRA's 20-30 basic cable deals. It is, however, the first time that SAG has spelled out the differences so starkly and so publicly.

Because the report came from the guild's highest-ranking staff official and not from an elected member, the guild finds itself in another intramural battle: between its Hollywood Division, whose members have spearheaded the hard-line stand against AFTRA, and the elected leaders of the New York and regional branches, who favor a merger between the unions. More than 40,000 performers have memberships in both labor groups.

Paul Christie, former president of SAG-New York and the guild's former 2nd national vp, is particularly furious about the Allen report, and said in an interview that any progress he and Rosenberg have made over the past two years to bridge the East-West divide has all but eroded within a matter of weeks.

"Doug Allen seems to be hellbent on a path that we all think is basically suicidal," he said, "and is putting us in an adversarial war with AFTRA."

Less than two months ago, Christie said of East-West relations: "It's been better than it's been in a long time. (Rosenberg) and I disagree on an awful lot of things, but I consider him a friend after two years, and if it's not getting done, it's not for lack of trying on his part. He's really busted his chops."

Although Christie relinquished his posts when he chose not to run for re-election, he remains an influential member of the New York board. Asked whether there have been any talks to heal the rifts within SAG, or those between SAG and AFTRA, he said: "We're beyond the point now where there's any sane communication. … None of the discussions that I'm involved with are good. There is no credibility between New York and Los Angeles."

In his letter, Allen examines different aspects of the AFTRA deals. For "Army Wives," Allen looks at what a day player's residuals would be over the course of six years and determines that the total payouts are 22% less ($1,100.55 vs. $1,343.43) than they would be if the show were organized under a SAG contract.

For the other two shows, Allen examines how much a series contract player and a day player earn over the course of three years. For "Dirt," a series regular would earn $162,518 in that time, and a day player would make $3,112 (assuming an actor is in one episode each year). A SAG contract would provide $190,777 and $3,537, differences of 17.8% and 13.7%, respectively. For "Minor Accomplishments," the amounts differ by 53.4%: $72,336 vs. $110,915 and $2,277 vs. $3,491.

AFTRA, anticipating Allen's letter, took out full-page ads recently in Back Stage, The Hollywood Reporter, and Daily Variety that called for a merger of the two unions, a move opposed by the guild's Hollywood Division. AFTRA also has circulated among its members e-mails that maintain SAG's "one-size-fits-all" contract for basic cable has resulted in 46% of those guild-covered shows being shot in Canada.

"AFTRA is providing more steady union jobs for more union actors in this country," national president Roberta Reardon wrote in one missive. "If the work isn't produced here, American performers don't have a shot to get it."

In an e-mail circulated by AftraNOW, a coalition that includes Reardon, New York local president Holter Graham and 21 other members, the union maintained that "flexible and effective residual patterns help to keep opportunity here for members. The best terms mean nothing if they chase your job to a foreign country."

In another e-mail to AFTRA members — timed with the SAG mag's hitting mailboxes of SAG-AFTRA dual cardholders — Reardon added further criticism of the piece as well as a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges against AFTRA.

"Mr. Allen's article is replete with … omissions of fact, manipulated data, revisionist history and hyperbolic conclusions to suggest that in an area of work legitimately covered by both AFTRA and SAG — basic cable — there is a contest between the two unions," Reardon wrote.

Christie was furious that Allen, the guild's highest-ranking staff member, wrote the letter without the approval of the SAG national board or the national executive committee. He said he asked to rewrite his regular column in Screen Actor to provide a counterpoint to Allen's argument but said he was told he was past the deadline.

Rosenberg said in an interview that he had a party recently for "high-profile" members of both unions at his house in Los Angeles and that the attendees were "overwhelmingly supportive of Doug Allen." He suggested that the Hollywood Division would take its campaign to the "44,000 joint cardholders" of each union and that they would decide the issue.

Surpassing the political leadership and carrying the fight directly to the rank and file also appears to be AFTRA's strategy. In its recent trade ads, the union presented a letter signed by about 250 joint cardholders that called for unity and a merger. Among the signatories were Emmy winners Bradley Whitford and Camryn Manheim, "Tonight Show" host Jay Leno and Vivica A. Fox. The statement read in part, "We, as members of (AFTRA and SAG), appeal to our fellow actors to come together with one strong voice through both of our unions as negotiations approach."

Based on the tenor of the current situation, the negotiations might arrive before the unity does.

Andrew Salomon is news editor of Back Stage East.
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