SAG-AFTRA Talks Continue Under Strike Threat After Member Meeting

Jonathan Handel
Outside the Wednesday night meeting

A strike could start in less than a month, and a source from inside the closed SAG-AFTRA meeting described a variety of alleged rollbacks and roadblocks.

Talks between SAG-AFTRA and the studios, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, continued Thursday in advance of contract expiration in less than 30 hours and a day after a members-only meeting in Studio City attracted hundreds of SAG-AFTRA members Wednesday night, most of whom said little to media except the word “solidarity.”

Earlier in the week the union unveiled a webpage that says the guild will send strike authorization ballots to its members if no deal is reached by Friday. That could result in a strike starting in the second or third week in July.

According to a knowledgeable source, even a short strike starting then could result in delays for single-camera shows planned for the fall broadcast season. The last actors strike against the entertainment industry began July 21, 1980, and lasted three months until a deal was reached that included a large wage increase and residuals for pay TV and videocassette.

Notwithstanding the union's strike webpage, it’s expected that (as has happened in years past) there may be willingness to extend the deadline in 24-hour increments one or two times past Friday night, at least if a deal seems in reach. By Sunday, though, if frustration sets in, negotiators might stop extending, if only to spend part of the July 4 holiday somewhere other than a conference room in a Sherman Oaks mall, where AMPTP headquarters are located.

If no deal is reached, it’s likely that the ballots will produce an authorization. SAG-AFTRA, unlike the Writers Guild, requires a 75 percent affirmative vote, of those voting, in order for an authorization to pass. In a 2008 labor disturbance, that threshold seemed unlikely to be met, and so a strike authorization ballot was repeatedly postponed, leading to a stalemate where the union neither struck nor reached a deal until almost a year after contract expiration.

But this year may be different. Disagreements between the union’s factions continue, but are more muted than a decade ago — and there was apparently no disagreement on the issue of strike authorization ballots, as the guild’s national board approved the threat unanimously.

Rollbacks and Roadblocks from Inside the Meeting

A source who was present at the Wednesday night meeting said that the union described AMPTP proposals that included loosening drop and pickup rules that protect day players, for instance, from non-consecutive days of employment that preclude other jobs; moving to a 10-hour day before overtime kicks in; and reducing weekend turnaround — i.e., rest time — from 36 hours to 30.

In addition, said the source, the companies are described as offering no relief on two key union concerns, short seasons and travel. The issue with short seasons for actors, as for writers, is that eight- and 10-episode seasons, such as for SVOD services like Netflix, mean that the actor is paid less than with a 22-episode network season, but is still held under exclusivity for the remainder of the year, with at most a limited opportunity to take other work.

The travel issue is this: Rather than pay lodging and a per diem as the union contract requires when actors are asked to work in another city than their residence, producers have taken to making a one-time relocation payment, typically $7,500, instead and then treating the actor in essence as a local hire, which is not contemplated by the contract.

Sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that this has been going on for several decades, apparently in violation of the union agreement, but as production in cities such as Atlanta has increased, the problem has grown larger. That $7,500 payment might only cover the move-in money for a $2,500 apartment, leaving the actor to then maintain two residences (L.A. and Atlanta, say) for the entire period of production.

The source did not have a clear recollection of the described AMPTP position on three other key issues: shoring up the union pension plan, whose 2016 funding level, 80.08 percent, is just a hair above the so-called yellow zone of risk; enhanced residuals for streaming services (SVOD), as was achieved by the Directors Guild and Writers Guild; and nominal 3 percent annual basic wage increases, which those two unions said they achieved, although the reality was a bit more complex.

SAG and AFTRA struck the commercial industry in 2000 for about six months, and SAG-AFTRA is currently on strike against nine major video game companies and has been for over 50 days.

Spokespeople for SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP did not immediately respond to inquiries, but the negotiations are being conducted under a press blackout.