SAG feels its own labor pains

Wage increases being negotiated between guild, Teamsters

Labor unrest is hitting SAG close to home.

Negotiations between the actors guild and Teamsters Local 986, which represents more than 40 of SAG's Los Angeles-based business representatives, have gotten bumpy. The contract between the parties expired June 1, and one issue still to be resolved is what wage increases the new deal will grant.

Yes, even unions have unions. In this negotiation, SAG functions as management, not labor. The guild's business representatives handle claims and meet with actors on set.

After about a dozen meetings, the two sides are far apart.

The Teamsters have proposed 5%, 4% and 4% annual raises for the first, second and third years of the contract, respectively, whereas SAG is offering 2% annual bumps for each year of the three-year deal.

SAG's number is consistent with other recent Hollywood deals. In June, AFTRA accepted 2% for a one-year extension of its daytime agreement, and Teamsters Local 399, representing Hollywood drivers, agreed to the same figure last month after initially holding out for 3%. The American Federation of Musicians also accepted 2%, and numerous smaller negotiations ended up at this figure as well.

Of course, SAG is a far smaller organization than any of the major studios, and it's a nonprofit to boot.

But SAG and AFTRA are expected to seek higher wage increases when joint negotiations on a new deal with the AMPTP begin Sept. 27. The fact that the guild is trying to hold the line at 2% with its own employees is ironic, but that is not expected to influence those talks because the economics of a nonprofit are much different from those of a media conglomerate.

Still, the difficult negotiation raises the possibility that disgruntled SAG employees might actually picket their own guild's talks with the AMPTP if no Local 986 deal has been reached by the time studio bargaining begins.

As one SAG business rep put it, "I will guarantee you this, if there is no contract by that time, we will bring the demonstration to the doorsteps of their negotiation."

SAG and the AMPTP declined to comment on the matter.

Another issue is a proposal by SAG that its unionized employees be required to submit claims of discrimination or sexual harassment to binding arbitration. That would strip the employees of the ability to bring such claims before a judge or jury. Companies often prefer arbitration for that reason because it might reduce the possibility of large damage awards and publicity.

Many of SAG's nonunionized employees already are bound by an arbitration clause. However, until a Supreme Court decision last year, it was unclear whether unionized employees could be required to accept such provisions. The court answered that question in the affirmative by a 5-4 vote.

However, SAG might be one of the few employers seeking to take advantage of that ruling, according to Seattle labor lawyer Kathleen Barnard.

Forcing employees to arbitrate discrimination and harassment claims is controversial. A bill seemingly stalled in Congress, the Arbitration Fairness Act, would prohibit such practices based on a view that arbitration stacks the deck against individuals. Ironically, one supporter of the legislation is SAG's parent organization, the AFL-CIO.

A source close to the negotiation said SAG believes the arbitration proposal is not much of a sticking point and that the employees' primary objection is to the guild's wage proposal.

Whatever the hangup, the SAG employees voted unanimously during a July 29 meeting to authorize a strike if the SAG proposal stands. The authorization gives the Local 986 negotiating committee the ability to take the employees out on strike without any further vote.

Local 986's Stephen Burke, chief negotiator for the employees, told THR that the committee "does not want or anticipate a strike" and that he believes the parties will reach an agreement. A SAG spokesperson also was optimistic, saying the guild "looks forward to productive discussions and concluding a deal."

SAG chief negotiator Laura Beedy Ritchie, the guild's deputy general counsel, has requested a formal bargaining session Monday with the local. That's two days in advance of a previously scheduled session.