SAG, studios head to table

AFTRA rejects 11th-hour joint talks invite

After months of industrywide angst, SAG will sit down at the bargaining table Tuesday with Hollywood studios and the networks.

The outcome of the talks is critical to the recovery and ongoing viability of the TV and film business, which were rocked just months ago by the 100-day WGA strike.

SAG, which has for decades jointly bargained with AFTRA, will go it alone this time. AFTRA on Monday rejected an eleventh-hour offer from SAG to join in on the negotiations.

AFTRA national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth sent SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen a letter explaining that the offer came too late for its national board to meet, "thoughtfully discuss" and vote on the offer. AFTRA also questioned whether SAG had changed its positions on "any of the serious problems" that had caused AFTRA to walk away from the 27-year-old joint bargaining agreement three weeks ago.

On Sunday, SAG's national board approved a resolution giving AFTRA until Wednesday to reconsider its decision to go solo.

When AFTRA suspended the so-called Phase One joint bargaining, it claimed SAG was raiding daytime productions under its jurisdiction after actors on "The Bold and the Beautiful" approached SAG about representation. AFTRA claims there is no evidence that SAG has changed its position on the issue.

AFTRA will have two observers in the room, as is standard for unions who will be bargaining with the same employers. SAG, for example, sat in on talks between the WGA and AMPTP, and SAG is invited to sit on the talks between AFTRA are the AMPTP, scheduled to begin April 28.

The last-minute offer confused some in the industry, and while it could be seen as an olive branch -- AFL-CIO head John Sweeney had worked behind the scenes to get the guilds together -- it could also be seen as a sign of weakness on SAG's part.

"It's definitely a Hail Mary pass kind of move and not at all what you expect if the union felt it had the leverage it needed," Los Angeles attorney Jonathan Handel said.

For one SAG member, the offer was the worst kind to make. "When you appease a bully it never seems to work," the member said. "I'm just tired of us sort of letting the greatest actors guild in the world be dictated to by AFTRA."

SAG brings a large package of proposals to the talks with Nick Counter and the AMPTP, which will be held at the AMPTP offices in Sherman Oaks, including a comprehensive residual platform for new media and an increase in the DVD/home video formula.

But the union has two weeks to cover all these bases before AFTRA begins its talks, and some experts say the two-week spread gives AFTRA an edge.

"I don't think they'll (SAG) get a deal in two weeks," veteran New York labor negotiator and attorney Norman Samnick said. "The companies just won't make a deal that SAG will agree to in a period of two weeks. AFTRA is a much more reasonable group."

Samnick recently participated in AFTRA's negotiations on its sound contract and that process was a "long tortuous road" that didn't even delve into the proposals SAG is presenting.

But Handel believes SAG will move quickly on a deal because of the AMPTP's date with AFTRA.

"I think AFTRA has checkmated SAG by setting up negotiations in two weeks," he said. "They've undercut SAG by saying, 'Look, you make your deal or else we'll come in and make our deal, which is more accommodating.' "