No apparent progress at SAG sidebar meeting

Studios, actors union remain at a stalemate

Wednesday's sidebar meeting between SAG and the studios provided more of what industry watchers have become accustomed to: talk and no apparent progress.

After meeting for more than two hours at AMPTP headquarters in Sherman Oaks, the two sides said in a statement that the discussion would be kept private and that no further meetings were scheduled.

The off-the-record "sidebar meeting" between small teams from each side was the second time the two SAG and studio reps have met face-to-face since bargaining broke off June 30, the day SAG's contract expired.

Meanwhile, a political war within SAG has been brewing beneath the surface.

MembershipFirst, the faction of actors that holds the majority of seats on SAG's Hollywood and national boards, has been a key supporter of SAG president Alan Rosenberg and national executive director Doug Allen throughout this rocky past year. The faction -- which includes board members Justine Bateman, Frances Fisher and JoBeth Williams -- led the guild's "Vote No" campaign against AFTRA's recently ratified primetime contract and has stood by the current administration.

However, notable New York board members -- including SAG 2nd vp Sam Freed, former New York board president Paul Christie and former SAG president Richard Masur -- have been just as outspoken in opposing many of the leadership's moves. The New Yorkers are more sympathetic to AFTRA's positions on basic cable and bloc voting, and they have advocated a less aggressive approach in the negotiations with the AMPTP.

The two sides could clash soon, with about one-third of the 69 seats on SAG's boards nationwide up for election in September. The Hollywood board will elect 11 national board members and 22 alternates; the New York board will elect five national board members and nine alternates. Hollywood and New York branch ballots will be mailed Aug. 19 and are due Sept. 18.

Board elections may not seem like a high priority as the contentious contract talks come to a crucial pass, but the steps SAG leaders take in the next few days vis-a-vis the AMPTP's "last, best and final offer" could affect who will control the guild's boards. SAG and the AMPTP have agreed to continue working under the terms of the expired contract for the time being, but many major studio features have shut down production.

But the AMPTP has increased the pressure, saying it will provide wage increases retroactively only if SAG accepts the deal by Aug. 15. The producers said actors could lose more than $200,000 a day in increases if the final offer is not ratified by that deadline. The AMPTP also requested that guild members vote on the final offer by the end of July.

The stagnant state of negotiations could figure in the elections in several ways.

If Rosenberg and Allen are forced to accept the AMPTP's final offer, SAG members might blame them for taking a lesser deal and consequently oust MembershipFirsters from the boards. However, guild voters also could blame the administration for perpetuating a de facto strike if the negotiations are still going on in September. Members also might be bitter about the MembershipFirst-dominated national board's decision to spend thousands of dollars in guild funds on an unsuccessful campaign against AFTRA's contract.

Stephen Diamond, an associate professor at the Santa Clara University School of Law and a former candidate for SAG national executive director, said SAG leaders certainly have the upcoming elections on their minds.

"I think the elections are probably playing a significant role now in shaping the tactical approach of the guild leadership," he said. "The problem with that, of course, is it suggests to the producers that the leadership is more interested in preserving power than in good-faith bargaining."

Greg Hessinger, who has held top positions at both SAG and AFTRA and currently is labor and employment partner at the law firm Reed Smith, agreed. "MembershipFirst has been openly critical of the deal at the table, so the hard-liners will seize upon any agreement as a sellout," he said. "On the other hand, delay will only serve to solidify the de facto strike and give moderates ample ammunition to criticize the bargaining strategy. If the de facto strike continues much longer, the SAG leadership will face pressure to submit the final offer to the membership for a vote with or without recommendation."

Also complicating matters is the possibility that some of SAG's celebrity members recently who involved themselves in union politics could form a new party and run for the available board seats.

Viggo Mortensen, Ed Harris, Ben Stiller, Sean Penn and Jack Nicholson expressed their support for SAG during the "Vote No" campaign. On the other side of the issue were Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Susan Sarandon, Alec Baldwin and Kevin Spacey. George Clooney remained neutral, but he released a letter urging the unions to work together and suggesting that higher-paid actors pay a greater share of dues.

But Hessinger noted that the stars would be more electable if they did not take sides.

"If there were a slate of stars that were independent of MembershipFirst and maybe even independent of any faction, that could definitely change the landscape," he said. "Those individuals could immediately command the swing vote on the board and effectively control the board."

Lauren Horwitch is news editor for Back Stage West