SAG-AFTRA Voting Begins on TV/Theatrical Deal in Test of Leadership

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Extensive details of the deal are now available.

Member voting commenced Thursday on SAG-AFTRA’s new TV/theatrical deal, the performers’ union announced, and additional details of the agreement were released in a lengthy ballot packet available online. Voting concludes July 22.

Ratification is expected, but the packet includes an opposition statement, and almost one-third of the votes on the organization’s national board were opposed to the deal, making the ratification ballot a test of members’ confidence in the Unite for Strength faction that has led the union and predecessor SAG since 2009.

“We were negotiating for our future,” said SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris in a video statement. “And we did it. SAG-AFTRA achieved a strong, forward-thinking contract that's going to help so many of our members for generations to come.”

The union has scheduled several virtual town halls, and the opposition has set one as well. Supporters of the deal cite a $318 million value to the pact and gains in streaming residuals, which are estimated at $750 million over eight years, and a host of other improvements.

But opponents, from the Membership First faction, see the pact differently.

“The phrase ‘historic gains’ doesn’t tell the full story,” the dissenters state in their minority report and online. “This contract enshrines historic losses and missed opportunities.” They point to, among other things, the quid pro quo for the streaming enhancement: a concession on broadcast syndication residuals that will cost the actors $170 million over eight years.

The improvements and concession both follow a pattern set by the Directors Guild in the deal it negotiated earlier this year. That agreement was reached just before the coronavirus pandemic took hold and the economy shuttered, leading some observers to conclude that SAG-AFTRA – and the Writers Guild, in the deal it reached days ago — were lucky to have obtained terms that followed the DGA pattern. Whereas, “were it not for the pandemic, SAG-AFTRA would have gone on strike,” a source close to the union previously said.

The difficulty for both sides is that collective bargaining involves a host of tradeoffs and a raft of assumptions about the future, which is difficult to predict even under ordinary circumstances, let alone during a once-in-a-century pandemic. And, there’s no objective way to measure whether a deal is “good” or “bad,” “the best possible” or “a missed opportunity.” That leads to arguments back and forth.

Indeed, a rebuttal to the opposition counters that “This is the richest deal in TV/Theatrical history, negotiated while our employers watched their businesses grind to a halt.” It contends that the dissenters offer only a strategy for no deal at all and that that “is how the authors of the opposition statement lost hundreds of millions in member wages in 2008.”

That last is a reminder that history is never far from the surface at the performers’ union. The backstory: MF governed SAG from 2005 through early 2009, when UFS wrested control by a narrow margin and restarted negotiations with the studios that had stalled under MF leadership. By the time a deal was achieved, the union’s members had worked without a contract for over eleven months and lost out on almost a year’s wage increases.

UFS enjoyed growing support — and in 2012 achieved its goal of merging SAG and AFTRA by a dramatic margin — but pendulums swing. In last year’s bitterly contested election for union president, Carteris prevailed over MF candidate Matthew Modine, but only with a plurality in an essentially three-way race that also included former MF activist Jane Austin. What will happen in next year’s elections is anybody’s guess, but the jockeying over the new TV/theatrical deal presages another vigorous contest.

For an outline of the deal, see previous THR reporting and for extensive additional details see the ballot packet (pdf).