Chanting actors rally 'round the SAG

Leadership pitches plan to vote down new AFTRA deal

SAG took its battle with the studios to the sidewalks outside its L.A. headquarters for a Monday morning rally with members, vowing to fight for a fair deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers and urging actors to vote against the newly brokered AFTRA contract with the major studios and networks.

"It is essential that we vote down that AFTRA deal now," SAG president Alan Rosenberg told the 300-strong crowd that gathered outside the union's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. "From this point forward, in e-mails and phone calls, with your vote on that contract, say, 'Get back to the table with the Screen Actors Guild.' We remain united as we go out there and get the best possible deal for you, our members."

AFTRA's 76-member national board voted Friday to send that union's new primetime/TV contract to its members for ratification. SAG is urging its members who are also members of AFTRA to vote the new deal down.

Rosenberg gave a rundown of some of the "capitulations" AFTRA allegedly has made that SAG is not willing to make. A member of both unions, Rosenberg said AFTRA gave up the issue of product integration, took an increase in DVD residuals off the table and did not push for an increase in mileage reimbursement, which hasn't been bumped up for 30 years. (Members are paid 30 cents per mile, while the IRS suggested mileage reimbursement should be 50 cents.)

Rosenberg's microphoned comments were often met with chants of "vote no" from the crowd.

Regarding the use of clips in new media, Rosenberg said AFTRA's deal retains actor consent for clips before July 1 but allows actors the option to give consent at the time of hire for future clip use.

"What AFTRA has given us is the ability to give consent at the time of hire, which means if you say, 'No, you cannot use my clips on this particular project,' you will lose the job," he said. "That is no consent at all."

The tension between SAG and AFTRA is just the latest skirmish that could escalate into a battle royale for a new actors contract — and further push the industry into de facto strike mode.

SAG's chief negotiator Doug Allen assured the crowd that a vote against the AFTRA deal is not a vote for a walkout.

"Don't let anyone tell you that a 'no' vote means a strike," he said. "It simply sends AFTRA back to the table, where we can maximize our leverage together, which is where we should be."

But a source close to AFTRA who attended the rally said SAG mischaracterized the deal.

"It is unfortunate that SAG's primary negotiating tactic seems to be to vote down its sister union's contract on a prayer of achieving a better deal with the AMPTP," the observer said. "SAG members should encourage guild leadership to spend more time at the table and less time, effort and member resources undermining AFTRA."

AFTRA, in a message to members Sunday, defended its proposed new contract, pointing out that every member of the 31-strong bargaining committee is a working actor whose credits include "24," "Law & Order" and "CSI."

"Your negotiating committee and the elected leadership of your national board have a fiduciary and moral obligation to always push forward toward achieving our priority — even against criticism and politics — to serve AFTRA members' best interests," the message read. "Responsible unionism is not about posturing and rhetoric but about setting firm goals, defining priorities and moving forward intelligently to achieve them."

SAG has taken other criticism for its decision to fight AFTRA's contract.

Said one entertainment lawyer who reps talent: "The reality is, this should be resolved. It would be a tragedy for the industry and the actors if it was not resolved — look at the low ratings in TV, movies being canceled, how many deals have been lost and how much blood is already in the water. If they would have just started negotiating early and be more collaborative and focus on the issues rather than politics, they would be better off."

Rosenberg conceded to the crowd that SAG's negotiating committee has made "incredibly painful compromises on key issues" but that the AMPTP has not budged.

The rally also featured former SAG president Ed Asner, WGA president Patric Verrone and WGA national executive director David Young.

Verrone and Young thanked SAG for their solidarity during the 100-day writers strike, saying that SAG's support gave the writers necessary leverage in their negotiations.

Some questioned why the WGA would come to support a rally that includes opposition to the AFTRA deal, which takes a page from the WGA's new-media residual platform in its new contract. Several WGA members questioned said it was like comparing apples to oranges.

And Young told the crowd that it is possible for SAG to make a better deal covering new media than the WGA accepted.

"We hope that you can make a better deal than we did," Young said. " We hope that you can move the ball down the field."

Not everyone joined the SAG rally. Members of SAG's negotiating committee from the East Coast and other regions, in town for negotiations, boycotted the rally, believing it was dreamed up by the Hollywood-based Membership First faction that is opposed to the AFTRA deal.

"We cannot support anything which jeopardizes our negotiations at this very sensitive time, and that is just what this ill-advised action does," negotiating co-chairman Mike Pniewski said. "There's simply too much at stake to engage in such a divisive initiative."

While an East Coast-West Coast rivalry among its leadership has dogged SAG for years, the divisiveness has worsened during the current negotiations, reaching a boiling point Friday when the national committee narrowly voted to spend at least $75,000 to thwart AFTRA's deal with the AMPTP.

Rosenberg was unaware of any boycott, while Pamm Fair, SAG's deputy national executive director for policy and strategic planning, said she did not expect New York and regional branch members to attend the rally anyway.

"I'm not sure what that strategy was about," she said.

SAG will hold a members-only town hall meeting Wednesday in Los Angeles; AFTRA is planning informational meetings for its members Thursday and next Monday in Los Angeles.

Lauren Horwitch is news editor at Backstage West.