SAG, AMPTP set date for new talks

Organizations last met in November

It's not quite a clean slate, but someone new is holding the chalk.

As expected, SAG and the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers have agreed to meet Feb. 17-18 to re-engage in negotiations for a new TV/theatrical contract. Representatives from the two parties will gather at the AMPTP offices in Sherman Oaks.

Next week's sessions won't involve SAG's former chief negotiator and national executive director Doug Allen, who had been at the helm of guild contract activity until he was forcibly removed from his posts by a majority of the national board last month. New chief negotiator John McGuire and interim NED David White will be in charge of the guild's negotiations, along with a task force that replaced the negotiating committee that had been representing the guild.

SAG and the AMPTP have not engaged in official negotiations since late November, when two days of meeting with a federal mediator ended without a resolution. Since then, the actors union has fought a brutal internal battle over whether to move forward with a strike-authorization vote that could lead to a work stoppage.

Allen's firing was the ultimate fallout from that conflict, as self-described moderates on the board, who did not support any threat of a strike, exercised their power to remove him. A challenge to Allen's removal and the disbanding of the negotiating committee by SAG president Alan Rosenberg failed Thursday when an Los Angeles Superior Court judge denied his complaint.

And now the guild heads back to the table with the AMPTP to try to bridge the remaining gaps between their demands. SAG members have been working under an expired contract since June 30, when the companies put forth what they termed their final offer.

Speed is a priority -- not just because film production has slowed drastically as the contract dispute has dragged on but also because SAG and its sister union, AFTRA, are scheduled to begin joint negotiations for a new commercials contract with advertising industry reps Feb. 23.

If SAG and the AMPTP cannot come to an agreement for a tentative TV/theatrical contract by then, something will have to budge. Even under the best of circumstances, it would take a minimum of four weeks to get a tentative agreement ratified by the SAG national board and then its paid-up members.

And that is no sure thing because Rosenberg and his MembershipFirst partisans continue to agitate against ratifying anything that looks like the current contract offer. Issues pertaining to new-media jurisdiction and residuals, force majeure protections, DVD residuals, product integration and the window the new contract would cover remain in dispute.

On Tuesday, 1st national vp Anne-Marie Johnson, who also is the spokeswoman for MembershipFirst and a member of the new negotiating task force, released a statement to the membership reiterating her party's resistance to the firing of Allen and arguments against the current contract offer. She also expressed doubts about the task force's ability "to bring back a deal that can be endorsed by an overwhelming majority of the national board and, most importantly, by over 50% of the membership."