Awards Watch: Screen Actors Guild

SAG's new president offers hints about a future pact

SAG president Ken Howard is well aware of his union's M.O.

"One of the arguments we have run up against has been, 'Well, SAG is just so crazy. There is all this carrying on, and infighting, various factions -- they are impossible to deal with,' " he notes. "At times, there could have been some truth to it, but we're going to do everything we can to take that argument away."

Howard's goal will be tested this year, especially this fall when SAG is obligated to begin negotiations with producers. Negotiations for its TV/theatrical contract must kick off Oct. 1 and conclude by Nov. 10, before the contract's ultimate June 30, 2011, expiration. But Howard seems unfazed.

"We're operating in a unified way, where the convincing and overwhelming majority of the Screen Actors Guild (is) on the same page," he says.

That certainly wasn't the case last year.

SAG began 2009 with many members on decidedly different pages. January 2009 marked a bold move by Howard and United for Strength, a group that launched a boardroom coup against hard-line members including then-president Alan Rosenberg.

Rosenberg had resisted negotiating with studio management and had alienated fellow union leaders -- including the top brass at sister performers guild AFTRA. But Howard's group brought in new negotiators and cut a preliminary deal with producers, effectively pushing Rosenberg and his allies to the sidelines. This led to a contentious presidential election between UFS-backed Howard and Anne-Marie Johnson, who ran on the MembershipFirst platform, a group that supported Rosenberg's positions.

In September, Howard was elected president with 47% of the vote, while Johnson and two other candidates split the rest of the vote.

A month after his win, Howard pushed to have David White made permanent national executive director, after he had served as interim director for 10 months. With overwhelming approval from the SAG board, White's selection was supported at least in part by some MembershipFirst faction members, who split control of the 71-member national board closely with UFS. That made White SAG's chief negotiator for the upcoming negotiations with the studios' negotiating arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. (An AMPTP spokesman declined comment.)

White is careful not to offer any specifics about SAG's negotiating strategy for October, but the big issues are hardly a secret. Health & Pension contributions will be a primary concern -- and that is one area where White thinks there may be some agreement between the two sides.

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"It is in the interest of the industry, both sides, labor and management, to find ways to make sure that we relieve some of that pressure," he says. "I've heard management express that, because we have to find a way to maintain a viable pool of talent, otherwise the whole system suffers."

A bigger issue is the ongoing debate over compensation from digital media. As more viewers watch their favorite shows online or use devices like iPhones and other PDAs to check out the latest blockbuster, insiders hope the entertainment industry will finally figure out a way to generate a steady stream of revenue.

For years management argued it didn't know what it would get from digital platforms. But that is beginning to change, White says.

"There is some learning about what doesn't work, which is the beginning process to understanding what does work," he says. "We're beginning to clarify, but there are still many open questions."

Johnson, who serves as SAG's first national vp, agrees that the industry hasn't yet figured out how to monetize the new digital platforms, but says this shouldn't preclude management from offering some sort of revenue-sharing formula with unions. The vp was opposed to the deal Howard and his allies cut in 2009, because it did not include any sort of percentage participation in new media.

"It's virtually impossible to make up what you've given away," she says. "You can't unring the bell."

She is not alone in her dissatisfaction with SAG's approach to digital media compensation, says Jonathan Handel, a professor at the UCLA School of Law and an entertainment attorney at TroyGould, who closely follows entertainment labor issues. If management thinks the 2009 deal means it won the digital compensation war, he argues, it is in for a rude awakening.

"When I talk to moderate forces within SAG, people who were in favor of signing the deal, they say, 'I don't like it,' " he says. "There is really no one at SAG who likes the deal."

This is a problem for SAG and its members, but it's also a problem for the studios if they want to avoid contentious negotiations in 2010 and a work stoppage in 2011. "Management is going to have to be very cognizant and have their finger on the pulse to avoid more labor disruption," Handel warns.

For his part, Howard feels one approach to ensuring successful negotiations in October is by practicing the more communicative dialogue he espoused during the campaign.

"There's a way to go in and be strongly protective of the rights of performers without throwing down the gauntlet, without a lot of saber rattling and posturing and threatening," he says.

That approach, he adds, will work best if the guild works in conjunction with the other guilds, particularly AFTRA, which will be negotiating its own TV talent contracts concurrently with SAG. Howard says he has already been in discussion with the leaders of the WGA and the DGA, as well as AFTRA national board president Roberta Reardon, a process he is planning on continuing through 2010.

"We have to focus on getting ready, both internally and in terms of forming a productive partnership with AFTRA," he says. "I've talked a lot with Roberta Reardon about this, and, as you know the last negotiation was seriously affected by that breakup, so we're going to fix that."

In contrast to 2009, where Rosenberg and his allies were critical about AFTRA and the other guilds, 2010 should see Howard and SAG engaging in a much more collaborative relationship -- which raises the question of whether SAG and AFTRA will revisit the idea of a merger, a move the previous leadership opposed.

"Clearly, it is on the minds of many of the members," says Reardon, who admits she got involved in union politics because she believes in the concept of one unified performers guild. "I should point out the AFTRA national board and the AFTRA convention have been on record as supporting a merger since 2003, which was when the last merger attempt failed."

Still, AFTRA has plenty of other things to occupy its time in 2010. The union will be negotiating four different deals in the next 18 months, including a news contract that expires in May; a sound recording contract that expires in June; and a "front of the book" contract expiring in November that covers everyone from game show talent to soap opera performers.

"Contract priorities are at the top of our page," Reardon continues, "but certainly merger is a question everybody is going to have to look at."

Howard hopes a coordinated negotiation in October could be the groundwork to having a unified performers union. "A successful joint negotiation is key here, because that advances the goal of an eventual merger," he says. "SAG and AFTRA have been heading in that direction, and really have to. It's the only way we'll have real strength in terms of representing performers."

SAG won't have it easy. The preliminary negotiations may produce nothing substantial -- and the notoriously management-friendly DGA could make a deal that undercuts the bargaining power of the other talent unions. But Howard feels a collaborative approach is the way to get a deal.

"That will make for a better and a healthier negotiation," he says. "That overused phrase 'win-win' is really true."
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