SAG-AFTRA Approves Negotiating Proposals, Signaling Muscular Approach to Studio Talks

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SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris

The approval of a package six months sooner than usual suggests the union intends to play an especially aggressive hand as talks near.

In an unusual move, SAG-AFTRA’s national board has approved a studio bargaining package, the union announced Sunday, six months ahead of the organization’s usual schedule, signaling a possible challenge to the Directors Guild of America’s customary first position in studio talks as the 2019-2020 industry-wide negotiating cycle looms — and at the least, an attempt to help set the pattern on residuals and perhaps other aspects of the deal.

Coupled with Saturday's announcement that SAG-AFTRA had reached a separate three-year agreement with Netflix, the moves dramatically heighten the likelihood that SAG-AFTRA may seek to negotiate with the legacy studios as early as November, after the conclusion of the union’s elections and October convention, and that in any case it intends to exert significant leverage against Disney and other companies desperate to catch up with Netflix. The streaming service boasts 60 million domestic subscribers and 151 million worldwide, despite a recent slowdown in growth.

"The board … voted up the 2019-20 TV/Theatrical proposal package for contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers," the union said in a statement. "Details of the proposal package are confidential and per standard practice will not be released."

All three above-the-line unions' master agreements expire mid-2020, with the Writers Guild of America pact ending May 1 and the other two guilds having a June 30 expiration. Three years ago, the SAG-AFTRA board approved the union’s negotiating package on Jan. 21, 2017, and began negotiations that May, long after the DGA had concluded a deal (in December 2016) and days after nail-biter WGA talks ultimately resulted in a deal.

But this cycle might be different. A newly aggressive SAG-AFTRA could negotiate first, but in recent times that’s happened only in the 2010-11 cycle. It takes two to tango, and the likelier possibility is that the AMPTP will insist on starting with the DGA, viewed by management as easier to bargain with. However, the deal that union reaches may well take account of residuals gains that SAG-AFTRA has achieved in the Netflix deal.

In effect, even if SAG-AFTRA doesn’t negotiate first with the AMPTP, it may already have set the pattern for certain items of common interest to all three unions.

SAG-AFTRA might then negotiate second, in the January/February time frame, or it may not start talks until after likely March/April WGA talks. But regardless of schedule, the union will carry a big stick: the implicit and possibly overt threat of a strike against legacy media companies (and perhaps Apple and Amazon) while Netflix remains open for business under the new bilateral deal. A walkout could come no earlier than the June 30 expiration of the current agreement, but if prolonged could be devastating for such companies as Disney, WarnerMedia and Comcast, all of which are spending billions to bring new streaming services such as Disney+ and HBO Max online in coming months as they seek to topple Netflix.

And a strike in which a major employer, Netflix, continues operating means that the pain for actors would not be as great as a total walkout, as there would still be significant work available. Also, the union’s recent conclusion of a renewal of its massive commercials contract would provide another source of work for some thesps in the event of a TV/theatrical labor stoppage.

Meanwhile, the WGA is also likely to take an aggressive approach to bargaining, once again negotiating down to the wire — and potentially threatening a strike as well, adding to its existing talent agency walkout. That could even result in concurrent writers and actors strikes, which might lead the AMPTP, comprised primarily of the major studios, to rue the day in 2008 when it agreed to allow the WGA contract to expire essentially concurrently with the actors’.

In other business, the union board also approved an agreement with the National Association of Actors (ANDA), the Mexican actors union, that enhances cooperation between both unions, including collaboration on contract and rule enforcement, organizing and technology initiatives.