Actors unions butt heads over negotiations


AFTRA votes to negotiate contract alone

The feud between SAG and AFTRA is nothing new. But the critical decision Saturday by AFTRA's national board to suspend its joint bargaining agreement with SAG, known as Phase One, has heightened the bad blood between the actors unions to Hatfield and McCoy levels.

AFTRA's go-it-alone approach with the TV-theatrical contract, which covers 44,000 members of both unions, now raises the question of which union will sit down first for formal talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

"You have two competing unions now, and who's going to go first is important," one SAG member said.

The union that does not negotiate a new contract first with the AMPTP could find itself facing a bigger battle, depending on whether its proposals are greatly different than what was agreed upon by the other union. AFTRA has been pushing for early talks all along, so it would come as no surprise if they were first to the table.

SAG has been firm that it needed to complete the wages and working conditions process, which involved drafting proposals to take to the AMPTP before any formal talks would begin.

With that part of the process completed, both unions said Sunday that they would be getting in touch with the AMPTP within the next few days.

"Informal discussions are happening and we expect to set a timeline soon," AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said.

SAG executive director and chief negotiator Doug Allen said the union plans to call the AMPTP Monday.

"We've discussed it informally with them," Allen said. "This is what we were waiting for to get started on bargaining: To get this process finished and for the input of the members who were all participating."

The AMPTP issued a statement saying it was pleased that AFTRA is ready to start formal talks and is determined to "work hard and bargain reasonably" to avoid another harmful strike in the industry. The statement made no mention of SAG.

Both unions, however, probably will wait until after talks between IATSE and the AMPTP, which are set to begin April 7.

AFTRA's eleventh-hour decision to suspend joint bargaining with SAG came Saturday, when both actors unions were set to vote on the proposal package its members have been working on since February.

Just last Tuesday and Wednesday, members of both unions' wages and working conditions committees met to put finishing touches on the package. Word out of those meetings was that both worked amicably side by side.

But even that characterization had Allen and Reardon disagreeing. Allen described the meetings as "energetic" and "exciting."

"It was productive. It was enthusiastic. It was unifying," Allen said. "It was amazing and inspiring and it has been completely repudiated by AFTRA."

Reardon painted a different picture.

"There's always a certain amount of tension in those rooms between participants," she said. "There was a good working sense, but it was not without its moments, tensions or disagreements."

The straw that broke the camel's back Saturday, Reardon said, was the anticipated decision by the cast of the daytime soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful" to circulate a petition to decertify AFTRA representation.

Several weeks ago, members of the cast approached SAG about issues they had regarding AFTRA's representation.

"They're fed up that AFTRA has not taken care of their needs and concerns and that AFTRA has not assisted them in getting money owed to them," said SAG national board member Anne-Marie Johnson, also an AFTRA member. "They're fed up with their health and retirement package, and they know SAG will assist if they could."

Johnson said the actors were told to bring it up with AFTRA because SAG taking jurisdiction over the "Bold" actors would be considered "raiding."

Allen said the guild assured AFTRA it would not assist the soap opera's cast in their efforts to organize with SAG.

"The timing of this was transparently obvious," Allen said. "It was incredibly cynical and calculated. It was a flimsy excuse. SAG was never intent on raiding or representing the soap opera."

But Reardon said for AFTRA it was clear SAG planned a raid. She cautioned that the decision to stop jointly bargaining was not just because of "Bold."

"We had learned about 'The Bold and the Beautiful' situation but found out quite later in the game that the situation was much more dire than we first knew," Reardon explained.

Over the last year, there have been "growing attacks from the guild" that pushed AFTRA to its boiling point, including "letters in the screen actors magazine, petitions, elected leaders of SAG on the sets of our cable shows."

"It's been a very planned campaign to discredit AFTRA and the decertification petition is the outcome of that," she said. "You cannot engage in bargaining with employers when you're sitting at a table with a partner you don't trust. We would spend more time negotiating with each other than the industry."

For 27 years, SAG and AFTRA have negotiated jointly the TV-theatrical contract -- which includes primetime and cable programs -- with the AMPTP. But last July, SAG pushed to change that partnership and institute bloc voting on the negotiating committee rather than the usual 50-50 split.

SAG backpedaled on that decision in February, deciding to work toward keeping the relationship with AFTRA intact. Despite that, things have continued to sour between the two unions, and both rarely have been on the same page over what and when to negotiate with the studios.

Despite the contentious history, Allen denied Reardon's allegations of a SAG campaign against AFTRA and said it tried to work with its sister union.

"How is it better for the acting members of the unions to negotiate separately?" Allen asked. "How is the leverage of the average working actor increased by negotiating separately as opposed to together?"

But not every SAG member believes the union's leadership was that blindsided by AFTRA's decision or will mourn the loss of the union as a bargaining partner.

"It was only recently that the Hollywood leadership of SAG was actively working to end our relationship with AFTRA over the strenuous objections of those of us who knew what the outcome would be for both unions," said Sam Freed a New York member who is SAG's second national vp. "Now, after a year of provocation that has gotten them what they always wanted, they are placing the blame on everyone but themselves for the outcome. The current Hollywood leadership of SAG has today failed all actors."