Questions loom in SAG-AMPTP talks

Is a strike coming? Will current contract be extended?

As SAG inches closer to the June 30 expiration date of its TV/theatrical contract, two questions come to the fore.

Will SAG extend the contract, enabling its members to keep working while negotiators keep bargaining? And will the guild ask its members to vote to authorize a strike -- assuming they can't hammer out a deal in the next two weeks with the studios and networks, which few anticipate?

The answers are not so clear.

The decision on whether to call for a strike-authorization vote is up to SAG's 13-member negotiating committee, which consists of members from Hollywood, New York and other regions; the Hollywood members have a clear majority.

The strike-authorization voting process likely would take at least two weeks, as it did last year with the WGA. In that case, the WGA sent strike-authorization materials to members at the beginning of October, with ballots due Oct. 18. The results of the vote were announced Oct. 20.

While the WGA rank and file were unified on the strike front, that does not appear to be the case with SAG. Many industry insiders believe it would be a risky move for the guild to take a vote, believing it would be next to impossible for the guild to get the 75% strike-authorization vote it needs. That's in part because of the financial toll taken by the writers strike, along with Hollywood's overall weariness with labor strife and the divisiveness within SAG's ranks that surfaced in after its leadership urged members of its fellow actors union AFTRA to reject their tentative agreement.

If SAG were to vote to give its leadership the go-ahead to call a walkout, it could give its negotiators more leverage in its negotiations with the AMPTP. Conversely, the failure of a strike vote would tip the scales in the other direction.

So far, there seems to be no movement by SAG's negotiating team on the strike-authorization front, despite its chief negotiator and national executive director Doug Allen indicating that a new contract is unlikely to be brokered by June 30.

SAG can extend the contract by weeks or months, and it would not be the first time SAG did so with its TV/theatrical contract. In 2001, the guild extended it three days beyond the June 30 expiration date while it continued negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

In the meantime Tuesday, formal talks between SAG and the AMPTP continued for the 32nd day.

SAG started talks April 15 but had to suspend the negotiations when AFTRA began its talks May 7. It returned to the table May 28, the day AFTRA announced it had reached a tentative agreement with the studios. Insiders say that break stopped what bargaining momentum there was, and the two sides have made little progress since they returned to the table. That, coupled with the fact that AFTRA reached a deal that is awaiting ratification, has contributed to the stalemate in negotiations.

Allen said the studios have not been "engaged in making meaningful moves in our direction. We've made many more moves in their direction than they've made in ours.

"We're here to get a deal done and to do it as soon as we can get it done," he added. "We're committed to the bargaining process. We just need management to be as committed as we are."

The AMPTP has denied Allen's contentions, pointing to the fact that it has successfully negotiated four other contracts with three unions (WGA, DGA and AFTRA's Network Code and primetime/TV contract) so far this year.

"Ever since SAG's Hollywood leadership launched its distracting campaign against AFTRA, SAG's negotiators have quite clearly been stalling for time, trying to run out the clock while SAG tried to defeat AFTRA's new contract," AMPTP spokesman Jesse Hiestand said. "There is no mystery about what is going on here."

With AFTRA now gearing up to send the new contract to members for ratification, SAG has turned to a campaign urging the 44,000 members it shares with AFTRA to vote down its sister union's new deal.

Allen said AFTRA adopted the deal approved by the DGA's membership earlier this year without any change.

"What they did in new media is precisely what the DGA ended up with and not at all what AFTRA and SAG proposed initially, or where SAG is in our proposal today," Allen said.

AFTRA has defended its tentative contract, claiming that it now has jurisdiction over "made for new media" content, and built on the DGA and WGA residual pattern, establishing rate structures for ad-supported streaming, paid downloads and new-media rentals.

Lauren Horwitch is news editor at Back Stage West.