SAG members ratify new pact

Two-year TV/theatrical contract approved by 78% of the vote

The people have finally spoken. Or rather, shouted.

The membership of SAG officially ratified its proposed new two-year TV/theatrical contract Tuesday by a margin of 78% to 22%. SAG members had been working under the terms of the previous contract since June 30 as negotiations stopped and started during the past year.

SAG's national board recommended the contract to the membership for ratification April 19 by a mere 53% to 47%. Ballots went out May 19 to the 110,000 or so members in good standing.

Of those eligible to vote, 35.3% turned in ballots, a slightly higher percentage than usual. The votes were compiled and counted after Tuesday's 5 p.m. deadline. The new contract went into effect at 12:01 a.m. today and expires June 30, 2011.

"This decisive vote gets our members back to work with immediate pay raises and puts SAG in a strong position for the future," interim national executive director David White said. "Preparation for the next round of negotiations begins now. Our members can expect more positive changes in the coming months as we organize new work opportunities, repair and reinvigorate our relationships with our sister unions and industry partners and continue to improve the guild's operations."

Among the terms of the new deal are a 3% wage increase and a 0.5% pension and health plan contribution increase. In its second year, the contract triggers a 3.5% wage increase.

Jurisdiction and compensation for new-media work, which sparked much of the internal and external debate, were established for the first time, as they were in the DGA, AFTRA and WGA contracts negotiated last year.

The guild will benefit from $105 million in increases and contributions in the new pact, though it meant passing up close to another $100 million in raises while the contract remained unresolved.

The vote count in the Hollywood Division was 70.7% to 29.3% in favor. In the New York Division, it was 85.7% to 14.3% in favor. And in the Regional Branch Division, the count was 89.1% to 10.9% in favor.

"The ratification vote by SAG members is good news for the entertainment industry," the AMPTP said. "This concludes a two-year negotiating process that has resulted in agreements with all major Hollywood guilds and unions. We look forward to working with SAG members, and with everyone else in our industry, to emerge from today's significant economic challenges with a strong and growing business."

Well-wishers from the DGA and AFTRA followed suit.

With SAG's contract debate decided, much of the industry -- and film production in particular -- can breathe a sigh of relief as the threat of an actors strike has been put to rest. The past 18-22 months -- since the lead-up to the WGA strike in fall 2007 -- have seen a substantial contraction in opportunities for above- and below-the-line talent in Hollywood.

The 100-day writers' walkout early in 2008, followed by the uncertainly generated by the SAG standoff, prompted studios and networks to shave production deals, trim slates, squeeze fees, experiment with the Web and shrink development in TV and film. The upshot has been a tougher environment for actors and other performers to get work.

In addition, while factions within SAG argued over its approach to the contract fight, the guild saw nearly all the current season's network pilots move to AFTRA coverage.

That internal SAG battle, raging for most of the past year, now immediately shifts its focus to fall elections, the results of which will be announced Sept. 24.

MembershipFirst, which has adamantly opposed the just-passed contract as well as a merger with sister union AFTRA, plans a fundraiser as early as tonight, hosted by William Petersen and Melissa Leo, to jump-start momentum on its campaign. The party also has hired a political consultant to help manage its message.

Unite for Strength, which formed in the summer in opposition to MembershipFirst and picked up vital SAG board seats in September, will continue to campaign for consolidation and affiliation with AFTRA. That prospect always has been controversial and has only become more so in recent weeks as a SAG board member put forth a resolution to explore "the acquisition of actors of AFTRA" and several MembershipFirst partisans won seats on AFTRA's board.

"I think it's imperative that there be a letup of that internal battle," said Adam Arkin, a national board member and U4S supporter. "I think this vote was an indication that that's part of what people are weary of, and it's incumbent upon us to find ways to start to communicate better with one another."

SAG president Alan Rosenberg, who has consistently pushed for a harder stance against the networks and studios, has not indicated whether he will run for re-election. He is in his second two-year term.

Of the new contract, Rosenberg said: "The membership has spoken and has decided to work under the terms of this contract that many of us who have been involved in these negotiations from the beginning believe to be devastatingly unsatisfactory. (Wednesday) morning I will be contacting the elected leadership of the other talent unions with the hope of beginning a series of prenegotiation summit meetings in preparation for 2011. I call upon all SAG members to begin to ready themselves for the battle ahead."

Although nobody has formally announced a candidacy for SAG president, speculation has focused on James Cromwell, Seymour Cassel and Martin Sheen. Nominating petitions for SAG national officer positions and board seats will be made available Monday.

"I do feel like the Churchill quote: 'It's the end of the beginning,' " said Ken Howard, a national board member and U4S supporter. "My hope is that this expression will also show itself in the members that get elected to the national board in the fall -- and to the new presidency -- that then we'll be able to, with this endorsement, move forward."

AFTRA, which bargained jointly with SAG until spring 2008, ratified its own TV/theatrical contract last year, and SAG and AFTRA jointly ratified new commercials contracts in May.