A-listers fire back for SAG

Jack Nicholson among actors against AFTRA pact

The battle of dueling A-listers heated up Tuesday as SAG enlisted 67 actors -- including Jack Nicholson, Ben Stiller and Martin Sheen -- to back its campaign against the ratification of AFTRA's tentative pact with the studios and networks.

The move comes just days after Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey and more than 100 other guild members went on record in support of AFTRA's contract and urged a "yes" vote on its ratification.

For SAG, which completed its 37th negotiating session with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on Tuesday, the AFTRA ratification vote is crucial. The guild will have little leverage at the bargaining table if AFTRA's pact is approved; if it's voted down, the membership will have sent a strong signal that it is committed to achieving more.

The issues splitting the unions, as well as factions of SAG, are wages, pension and health contributions; residuals for all new media; no non-union media productions; protections from product integration; an increase in DVD residuals; and preserving force majeure protections. Those opposing ratification of AFTRA's pact say the gains in its tentative deal are not enough.

Meanwhile, SAG's national executive committee has voted to seek an extension to the union's TV/theatrical contract, which expires Monday. The move is not surprising, as the guild's chief negotiator Doug Allen has said he expects talks to continue past the deadline.

AFTRA brokered its tentative deal with the AMPTP on May 28. Members are now voting on whether to ratify the contract, with results expected July 8. A simple majority is needed for approval.

AFTRA has about 70,000 members overall, which makes the math for SAG extremely difficult, at least in theory. It would need to convince more than 35,000 of the 44,000 dual cardholders -- almost 80% -- to vote against the deal, assuming the other 26,000 or so would vote to approve it.

Then again, member response to referenda and elections has been historically low, often less than 30%, so nothing is certain. And it is because of that low voter turnout that both unions have been waging their campaigns for or against the AFTRA contract.

The executive committee, which was bitterly divided over the anti-AFTRA campaign, was nearly unanimous in backing the extension request. Tension arose later in the meeting, however, when members of the New York and other regional factions, who have endorsed the AFTRA contract, demanded to know what the plan for SAG would be if AFTRA members ratified the contract.

"It's absolutely dead certain that AFTRA will not go back to the table with SAG under any circumstances," said a source with knowledge of the meeting. "For Doug Allen to be making statements to the contrary is absolutely intentionally misleading the membership."

A spokesman for the AMPTP said Tuesday that the group had received no request for an extension.

SAG also has posted several videos from high-profile members on its Web site. Sheen and Ed Harris deliver 30-second video statements that say they "support the negotiating team."

Viggo Mortensen taped a longer video explaining his unhappiness with AFTRA.

"In the current issues we are dealing with, I would say that AFTRA is one of the main stumbling blocks," a somber Mortensen says. "I'm sorry to say that."

Mortensen adds that he's considering withdrawing from AFTRA temporarily and tells viewers, "If you don't take part, you will get screwed. And I don't intend to get screwed."

In response to the trade ads, an AFTRA spokeswoman said "thousands" of AFTRA members, as well as SAG board members in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and the labor community, support the union's contract.

"Yet, SAG's Hollywood leadership continues down its dysfunctional path, spending its members' dues in a misguided effort to attack another union and undermine a solid contract," the spokeswoman said. "For our part, we remain focused on educating AFTRA members about the facts and the merits of their new agreement so they can make an informed decision. We are confident that they will see through this latest politically motivated effort and ultimately ratify the AFTRA contract and help keep our industry working."

AFTRA was the first to enlist top actors to back its cause, sending out phone messages to its members from actors including Sally Field and James Cromwell last week. SAG followed with a "robo" phone calls by "Grey's Anatomy" star Sandra Oh, urging AFTRA members to vote no.

Andrew Salomon is news editor at Back Stage East.