AFTRA 'Very Frustrated' With Record Labels as Union Inches Toward Strike Vote (Exclusive)

"We hope this sends a strong signal," a source told THR of the board's decision to allow the contract negotiating committee to seek a strike authorization vote from members.

On the heels of an AFTRA press release issued Saturday, a source close to the union told The Hollywood Reporter that the labor organization is “very frustrated” with the pace of negotiations with the major record labels and for that reason took the step of inching towards a strike posture.

The phono needle hasn’t jumped the platter just yet, but there are definitely some scratches in the vinyl already. When asked whether a strike against the labels was possible, the source said only that “everyone hopes not.”

AFTRA’s constitution requires a 75% affirmative vote, of those voting, in order to authorize a strike.

The move taken Saturday by the union’s national board was a delicate procedural dance: The board authorized the contract negotiating committee to seek a strike authorization vote from members, should the committee choose to do so. The board’s move was not itself a strike authorization, contrary to some published reports.

While this may sound like a lot of to-ing and fro-ing, the move was unusual, according to the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We hope this sends a strong signal,” the source added.

The contract doesn’t expire until Dec. 31, but AFTRA’s sound recording deals are usually reached three or four months out. That’s not happened this time, despite three weeks of meetings in New York and Los Angeles so far. Only one additional day of talks are scheduled, for this Wednesday. National executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth serves as chief negotiator for AFTRA. 

The union noted that the agreement, called the Sound Recordings Code, generates more than $140 million annually in covered earnings and benefits for both major artists and session singers around the country.

Exactly what’s providing the discordant note in those negotiations is unknown, but the source did highlight a related factor: When the agreement was extended by a year in 2010, the labels also agreed to negotiate a music video agreement as well. Currently, those videos are generally produced outside of AFTRA jurisdiction, even though the singers and dancers involved are AFTRA members. Contract talks were held in mid-June, but have not yielded an agreement. The union is seeking provisions regarding safety, pay scales, overtime, residuals, and health and retirement benefits.

Back in the television world, the AFTRA board on Saturday also unanimously approved the appointment of the union’s 2011 network television code negotiating committee. The committee negotiates the “front of book” portion of the AFTRA Network Code, which covers all TV dayparts except network/CW primetime. The latter is negotiated jointly with SAG -- most recently, in the fall -- whereas front of book covers areas that exclusively AFTRA, such as soap operas, dramas in first-run syndication and nonscripted fare such as morning news shows, talk shows, variety, reality, contest and sports.

The contract is the union’s largest national collective bargaining agreement and generates more than $300 million a year in member earnings.

Negotiations are scheduled to commence Nov. 7 in Los Angeles. The contract expires just eight days later. That would seem to signal that little discord is expected. However, in a statement, Hedgepeth noted: “The traditional music, news and entertainment industries are changing rapidly, and the current and upcoming negotiations will provide a critical glimpse into the significant challenges that lie ahead in the 21st century and beyond.”

Among those changes, of course, is the continuing disappearance of soap operas from daytime television. Those serials were once a mainstay of the Network Code. AFTRA is currently negotiating with production entity Prospect Park regarding the on-line versions of One Life to Live and All My Children, slated to commence in late 2011/early 2012.

On the merger front, AFTRA national treasurer Matthew Kimbrough told the board that AFTRA has increased its budget for One Union-related expenses by another $115,000 to more than $1.5 million. Union president Roberta Reardon updated Board members on the discussions with SAG, noting “We are building a bigger, stronger and more expansive union, both in terms of numbers and jurisdiction.”

AFTRA’s next national board  meeting is Jan. 21, as is SAG’s. Both union boards are expected to receive and vote on detailed merger plans at that time.

Twitter: @jhandel