SAG painted into a corner

AFTRA deal, strike authorization not looking good for guild

With its final offer just hours before the screen actors contract expired Monday night, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers issued a dare to SAG: Take the deal or go take your strike vote.

The move is backed by two seemingly safe bets: 1) The guild will fail to defeat the ratification of the proposed primetime TV contract between producers and AFTRA; 2) It does not have the will or the votes to get strike authorization from its rank-and-file because they -- and the rest of Hollywood -- took a financial hit during the 100-day WGA strike.

Then again, in an unprecedented year for entertainment labor, anything can happen.

The AMPTP move "is definitely not standard," said a longtime industry insider who has worked for labor and management. "I do believe that the producers are confident that SAG cannot get a strike authorization."

As for defeating the proposed AFTRA deal, SAG faces an equally difficult task. The federation has about 70,000 members, about 44,000 of which are dual cardholders. About 26,000, though, are non-SAG members, and it seems unlikely that those with no loyalty to the guild would be inclined to reject a deal that their board of directors has overwhelmingly approved. To defeat the contract, SAG probably needs to persuade 80% of the joint members -- a steep arithmetic challenge, to say the least.

"Doug Allen comes from football, and this (anti-AFTRA) strategy is a Hail Mary pass," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney. "SAG has backed itself into a corner."

That is largely, but not exclusively, true. AFTRA is the one that suspended Phase One, the two unions' joint operating agreement, in part over allegations that the guild tried to poach its turf for the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful."

(Susan Flannery, the actress who is said to have instigated a possible change in jurisdiction, has declared that she and a castmate acted on their own. AFTRA has said the "B&B" fracas was the last straw in a long antagonistic campaign against the federation.)

Still, SAG leaders and its ruling Membership First party seem to have willingly engaged in a three-front war -- against AFTRA, its own New York and regional branches and the producers -- and as a consequence seems to have little leverage left except to strike. In undertaking this strategy, they appear to have become the victim of the proverb, "When the gods want to punish us, they grant us our wishes." The guild majority wanted to get AFTRA out of the negotiating room, it wanted to marginalize the New York and regional branches, and it wanted a credible threat of a work stoppage.

Wishes granted.

What SAG leaders really wanted, however, was leverage, and they do not seem to have much. In fact, they might not even get to strike because the producers might lock them out.

There is some confusion about what the AMPTP has given the guild: Is it what is known in labor negotiating as a "last, best and final" offer, or is it simply a "final" offer? Sources close to the producers said it is "last, best and final," while two independent union sources say it is simply a "final" offer. An actor and one of the strategists during the 2000 commercials strike said, "It is not at all uncommon for either side to make several 'last, best and final' offers along the way."

The distinction is important. If it is merely a final offer, it gives the sides some wiggle room. If, however, it is "last, best and final" and SAG rejects it, the producers legally can declare an impasse and do one of two things: Impose the terms unilaterally, which Broadway producers did with stagehands in November, galvanizing an already solid union and precipitating a 19-day strike; or lock out the actors, a move that one source said was a distinct possibility, though perhaps not for a few more weeks.

"I'd say they will lock (the guild) out within a week or two from impasse," said another source, who has a long history with Hollywood labor negotiations on the union side. "Impasse will occur the moment SAG rejects the AMPTP's last, best and final offer."

The last question is this: Will the producers' audacious move galvanize a horribly fractured guild? (Among other things, SAG leaders have denied New York board president Sam Freed access to the e-mail list of actors in his own region, keeping him from campaigning for the AFTRA deal, which would contravene official SAG policy.)

The first source, who has sat on each side of the negotiating process, said that was unlikely and contrasted Monday's move with the commercials strike of 2000:

"Under normal circumstances, they would be running precisely the risk that you've identified, but I believe that Membership First has managed to drive such a deep wedge this time, there is no way that this offer can bring the factions back together. Remember, in 2000, there were deep divisions, but the (advertisers) had rollbacks on the table. It's a whole different ballgame when it's only a question of how many gains are enough. In this climate, actors won't authorize a purely offensive strike and the AMPTP knows it."