SAG calls emergency meeting

Breakdown with AFTRA fuels talks

NEW YORK -- The top two officials of the Screen Actors Guild have called for a special national board meeting Feb. 9 to address its deteriorating relationship with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

Alan Rosenberg and Doug Allen, the guild's national president and national executive director, respectively, called for the meeting Tuesday night via email. The central issue of the meeting will be Phase One, the joint bargaining agreement the two unions have had since 1981. Under Phase One, SAG and AFTRA have negotiated with producers and advertisers for their most lucrative contracts, which cover television, film and commercials.

However, Phase One appears to be all but over, following a tumultuous seven-month period in which the Hollywood branch of SAG forced a change in the voting process for contract talks. In turn, AFTRA declared that the guild had broken the unions' long-standing agreement and announced it could begin negotiations on its own.

On Feb. 2, AFTRA made it official when its national board gave union officials permission to begin talks with producers for a new primetime network television contract. At the same meeting, AFTRA said it had successfully lobbied the AFL-CIO for its own charter, which would give the union several advantages, including the ability to forge joint agreements with other unions, such as the Communications Workers of America and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, one of the most powerful in show business.

In addition to its fractured relationship with AFTRA, SAG faces another internecine battle -- a fight between its Hollywood and New York branches. Since 2005, the West Coast board has been dominated by the party Membership First, which favors a much tougher negotiating stance with employers. The New York board favors more flexibility, a position shared by AFTRA. The difference in negotiating philosophy lies at the root of the intramural labor battles and is what prompted the Hollywood branch to push for bloc voting.

Bloc voting asserts that, during contract talks, every SAG vote will be cast for whatever position is favored by a simple majority; for example, if there is an 8-5 split on the SAG half of a negotiating committee, the eight members get all 13 votes. The move was bitterly opposed by national board members from New York and the regional branches, but Membership First has a controlling majority on the national board.

The SAG-AFTRA breakup "would be moot if they withdrew bloc voting," said Sam Freed, SAG's 2nd national vp and president of the New York branch. "It's the only justification AFTRA has" in starting TV negotiations without SAG.

SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said the union would have no comment.

SAG has been an ardent supporter of the Writers Guild of America, which has been on strike for more than three months. There is progress in negotiations, spurred in part by producers getting a television and film deal with the Directors Guild of America.

Nevertheless, Rosenberg and Allen sent an email to its members and the media in late January stating that what was good for directors is not necessarily good for actors, leading some SAG insiders to believe there could be a second strike if the guild is not successful in securing a new television and film contract. The current contract expires June 30.

The Hollywood faction in SAG seems to have gambled that, by joining forces with the hard-line leadership of the WGA, SAG would have more leverage in its negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the major film studios and television networks. However, without AFTRA and the support of its New York board, the guild could find itself isolated when it starts talks with the AMPTP.

Once the WGA ends its strike, which news reports have said could happen next week, it will not be able to go out on strike again. The L.A. local of the Teamsters union and other craft-service guilds negotiated new contracts in the summer. IATSE's international president, Thomas Short, excoriated the WGA leadership in November when writers first went out.

And at least one high-profile member of SAG, George Clooney, suggested in an interview with Variety that the entertainment industry will not have the stomach for a second strike. "There's a popular belief by some in the union that your negotiating power increases the longer you wait," Clooney told reporter Diane Garrett. "I think there's a lot of strike fatigue, and I think you actually start losing negotiating power."