SAG-AFTRA members OK commercial deals

Campaign over TV/theatrical pact heats up

The flags are flying -- and so are the arrows.

With ballots in members' hands, leaders of SAG's two rival parties are making an aggressive last push to sway the ratification vote on the tentative TV/theatrical contract. Advocacy e-mails and videos are proliferating amid accusations of fear mongering, strike intimation and personal appeals to financial damage in the event of a rejected deal.

The union had scheduled a members-only town hall meeting for Thursday night at the Hollywood Renaissance Hotel. Additional informational meetings are planned for June 1 in New York and in other regions during the next two weeks.

Ballots were mailed out Tuesday and are due back June 9.

In related news, SAG and AFTRA memberships as expected have ratified new commercials pacts with the advertising industry that were brokered last month by their joint-negotiating committee. The official tally showed that 93.8% of those voting approved the deals, which expire March 31, 2012.

The TV/theatrical vote is likely to be much tighter.

That deal was approved by the national board by only 53.4%-46.6%. Now the rank and file of the 110,000 or so paid-up members eligible to vote must decide whether to fight on now or fight on later.

The conflict arises from whether the gains in the deal are acceptable. It has been characterized recently as everything from "a real plan for dealing with the future" and "break(ing) unprecedented ground" to "utterly unacceptable" and "terrible on every front."

A no vote brings back the possibility of a strike-authorization vote and takes the fight back to the AMPTP. A yes vote locks in the new terms, however imperfect, with sunset clauses and a June 30, 2011, expiration date that virtually guarantees a rematch on controversial new-media parameters in two years.

Meanwhile, the campaigns are targeting the 30% or so of the low- and middle-class membership that typically end up voting.

"I think a lot of the members are not going to vote because they feel like, 'I don't really know enough about it,' " said SAG member Wendy Worthington, who said she will vote for the contract's passage. "That is frustrating to me. A lot of them listen to the loudest voices."

As SAG member Greg Itzin put it: "It really becomes an emotional issue. And if you make an appeal emotionally to what is essentially an emotional group of people, you can sway them one way or the other."

Dylan Baker, who works in commercials, TV and film, once found MembershipFirst's message appealing. But he feels that the 2000 commercials strike crippled the industry and in this cycle cites stalled film production and the fact that so many broadcast TV pilots are now covered by AFTRA among his reasons for supporting the new contract. Additionally, he feels the new-media gains are sufficient.

"We definitely need to establish SAG's jurisdiction in new media, and I think this contract does that," Baker said. "It doesn't break it down as much as we would like to. But hopefully, if we're all aligned in terms of AFTRA and the other unions, we can get closer to understanding it in the next two years so that the next contract will address it more concretely."

Several SAG members, including writer-actor Cathryn Michon, added that it feels as if the writers strike never ended. Itzin pointed to everyone from producers to caterers to prop and post houses that are hurting and blaming SAG for handcuffing the industry.

"We need to go back to work," Itzin said. "We need to stop being the pariahs in the industry."

If the contract offer were turned down by the union membership, one of two things would have to happen since the anti-ratification forces don't have the numbers to pass a strike-authorization vote.

The companies could make improvements in the deal that would ensure a SAG majority's passage -- a possibility only slightly less likely than the Republicans confirming Courtney Love to the Supreme Court. More likely is that the impasse will simply last until 2011, when the other guilds near their renegotiation cycles and the DGA, WGA, SAG and AFTRA could engage their leverage collectively.

But given SAG's inability to play well with others -- notwithstanding its solid support of the WGA during its battle with the AMPTP -- it's questionable whether those agendas could be meshed in a cohesive way. And the hundreds of millions of dollars in new raises given up over that period would be hard to justify.

It's feasible that SAG elections in the late summer/early fall could tilt the balance of power in a way that gave one side of the debate or the other a sizable mandate. But this seems unlikely.

"It's time to bury that hatchet -- and not in somebody's body -- and move forward," said Itzin, who is a member of AFTRA and Equity, too. "My hope is that even if people aren't happy with it, they realize that the time has come to get us back on the playing field. We're weakening ourselves by doing this because nothing is gained by not having a contract. Unless you're on the playing field, you ain't playing."