SAG, AFTRA storm clouds part


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The SAG storm clouds appear to be lifting.

Leaders of the actors union had threatened to rain on the industry's back-to-business parade by adopting a tough negotiating posture in their upcoming contract talks. That dark prospect had industryites fearing yet another potential work stoppage, even as the writers strike appeared to be winding to a close.

But the gloomy scenario now seems much less likely, thanks to a new spirit of detente between recently warring SAG and AFTRA reflected in a dramatic new reversal of position at SAG this weekend. And most observers believe AFTRA has always exerted a moderating influence on SAG during negotiations.

For decades, SAG and AFTRA have negotiated jointly with the Alliance of Motion Pictures & Television Producers. Yet the unions' negotiating partnership had been thrown into question by changes on the joint negotiating committee that SAG was pushing until a dramatic turnaround at a Saturday board meeting.

The SAG board suddenly had decided to work toward keeping the relationship with AFTRA intact. That means keeping the usual 50-50 split in dividing seats on the negotiating committee between the two unions and also nixing a controversial plan to institute bloc voting on the committee.

Such moves were needed to appease AFTRA leaders, who publicly vowed to start separate talks with the AMPTP if necessary but privately also held peace talks with SAG representatives.

Most importantly, the SAG board halted a membership vote on whether to split with AFTRA. SAG had been mid-process in staging a membership referendum on whether to end the longstanding joint negotiating relationship with AFTRA.

"Screen Actors Guild National Board of Directors today suspended its scheduled referendum on Phase One," SAG announced after its board meeting. "Voting 86.10% to 13.90%, the board authorized national executive director Doug Allen to postpone further implementation of the Phase One referendum pending the outcome of talks with AFTRA."

AFTRA executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth sent Allen a letter Friday underscoring AFTRA's interest in saving the Phase One relationship.

If the burgeoning SAG-AFTRA rapprochement does continue, talks could commence soon with the AMPTP to replace the performers unions' current film and TV pacts, set to expire June 30.

Meanwhile, there are at least a couple theories about the change of heart by the SAG board.

One is that its previous war-like posture was adopted prior to the WGA's securing a tentative agreement and reflected a SAG strategy of backing up the writers with tough talk by the actors.

Another explanation for the sudden change of tone by SAG leadership involves signs of strike fatigue among talent of all stripes.

At the Feb. 5 Oscars luncheon, George Clooney said SAG officials should halt any confrontational strategy and get cracking on negotiating a new film and TV contract (HR 2/6).

It also must be noted that SAG New York was on record as being strongly opposed to any break with AFTRA.

Whatever the motivation, peace has suddenly broken out between SAG and AFTRA.

"We are confident that these actions will pave the way for Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA to jointly negotiate improvements for all actors working under SAG and AFTRA contracts," SAG president Alan Rosenberg said. "Screen Actors Guild's objective remains to negotiate the best wages and working conditions for all actors. We look forward to speaking with a unified voice when we face our employers across the table."

Allen sounded a similarly conciliatory note.

"Despite the fact that AFTRA announced its intention to enter early negotiations on primetime television provisions on its own, they have recently signaled that they are ready, willing and able to work together with Screen Actors Guild in the best interests of actors," he said.