It's decision time for SAG

Guild likely to seek extension rather than risk losing leverage at table

For the industry, D-Day is Monday, when SAG's contract with the Hollywood studios expires. But does that "D" stand for disaster? Denouement? Or simply delay?

SAG's national executive committee has approved a measure granting its negotiators the authority to seek an extension of the contract. Although not a requirement, an extension seems to be a near certainty, because no substantive bargaining is likely to take place until the results of AFTRA's contract ratification vote are known July 8.

SAG has waged a public battle with AFTRA over the tentative contract, which was reached with the studios and networks' negotiating arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, on May 28.

As SAG's national executive director and chief negotiator Doug Allen wrote to members June 23, a rejection of the AFTRA deal "gives us more leverage, not less, at the negotiating table." Given that, it's highly unlikely SAG will make a final bargaining push until it knows how much leverage it has.

But even if SAG's smaller sister union does reject its pact, veteran industry lawyers say there's no guarantee that AFTRA will return to the table with SAG. Instead, voting down the deal will most likely add tension, rather than create solidarity, they say.

"Given the animosity that has developed because of this campaign, it's hard to see the two unions cooperate in terms of the future," said attorney Scott Witlin of Akin Gump, whose clients include producers. "I don't think AFTRA would have any confidence that SAG would engage in expeditious negotiations."

"They don't have to go back with SAG," said Alan Brunswick, a labor lawyer at Manatt Phelps & Phillips who once served as in-house counsel to the AMPTP. "They can go back to the table on their own and press out a few wrinkles in their contract. It's unlikely they would go back together."

Hillary Bibicoff, a transactional lawyer at Greenberg Glusker who reps actors, agreed. "I certainly don't see a rejected AFTRA pact making them patch up their differences," she said.

While SAG has yet to seek a strike authorization vote from its members, the industry is already in a de facto strike, with the studios winding down all but a few film productions by Monday.

While SAG could work with the AMPTP to extend the existing contract, it's not a requirement.

"If there's an agreement to extend, they can extend it by a month, a week or day-to-day," Witlin explained. "Or they can have no extension and the contract lapses. But that doesn't automatically mean there's a strike. That just means there could be one at any time if SAG gets strike authorization."

Without a contract extension, the union would be taking a risk at the table. Labor laws would permit the studios to make "a last, best and final offer," which SAG would be obliged to accept or reject. If SAG were to reject, the studios could impose the terms of their final offer.

"SAG's only option at that point is to take it or take a strike vote," Brunswick said.

SAG would need 75% of its membership to vote in favor of a strike, and many industry watchers believe it would fall short. Dire economic forecasts and the fatigue lingering from the 100-day WGA walkout are the factors most cited as negatives that would weigh on the guild membership.

Much would depend on what that final offer is, Brunswick added. "If it's along the lines of the AFTRA contract, then hopefully that would not rile enough people up to get a 75% vote to go on strike," he said.

Back Stage East news editor Andrew Salomon contributed to this report.