SAG's chief risks striking sour note


SAG president Alan Rosenberg faces a fight on two fronts. Confronted with opposition from studio reps at the bargaining table over key contract demands, Rosenberg and SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen are aiming to regain negotiating leverage by going against sister union AFTRA's recent deal with the majors.

The problem: There is significant opposition to that strategy from within his own ranks.

"To ask me to vote down one of my union's contracts is about as absurd a proposal I can possibly imagine," said Paul Christie, SAG national board member and former second national vp. "I think it's probably unprecedented in American labor history. Nobody is going to walk off a cliff for them."

AFTRA struck a deal on its primetime TV deal with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers on May 28. It was the first time the performers union negotiated the contract without SAG in 27 years. The decision to bargain separately increased the animosity between SAG and AFTRA that had been brewing for the past year.

Rosenberg and Allen are set to meet in person and via video conference with members of its national board today to discuss the negotiations. At the top of the agenda is whether to push the 44,000 members of SAG who are also members of AFTRA to vote down the recent deal. Additionally, the SAG board is expected to discuss strike authorization and try to determine whether members would vote in favor of a walkout.

Meantime, a Santa Monica-based economic think tank report released Thursday indicates another industry strike would be devastating to California's economy alone.

The report, "The Writers Strike of 2007-2008: The Economic Impact of Digital Distribution," suggests that the recent three-month scribe strike tipped California into a recession. And while the strike lasted 100 days, its effect will be felt through the end of 2008, with a projected loss of 37,700 jobs and $2.1 billion in lost output by the end of the year. Personal income is projected to decline by $3.1 billion, while wages and salaries are expected to hit a $2.3 billion loss as a result.

The state could recover in 2009, but if another strike were to be called, it wouldn't be until 2010 before the industry and state would see a recovery, the report says.

"If the industry were to shut down yet again due to a SAG strike, it would deal a serious blow to California's prospects for economic recovery," the report concludes.

Hollywood has been bracing for another union walkout, with studios essentially throwing themselves into de facto strike mode for the summer, penciling in few, if any, projects on their calendars.

But SAG has yet to ask its membership for a strike vote, though that could change today.

Veteran Los Angeles labor attorney Howard Fabrick, a former chief negotiator for the AMPTP, said a strike threat would not give SAG much leverage in the talks. Rather, it would create animosity and cause added tension in the negotiations.

"The attitude across the table in dealing with a union that has sought strike authority tends to harden, as opposed to a union that is bargaining in good faith and trying to make a deal," Fabrick said. "The employer may find the strike authorization the equivalent of an ultimatum. That undercuts the effort.

"If they failed to get a strike vote, it would put them between a rock and a hard place," he added.

Allen and Rosenberg may have already muddied the waters with the AMPTP when they met Monday with execs at Sony Pictures, Fabrick said. Such actions are often considered an attempt to undercut the authority of the collective bargaining representative, he noted.

"I would be rather upset if someone went around me and went to members of my committee or the groups I represented and tried to sabotage my role as a negotiator," Fabrick said. "I think (the AMPTP's Nick Counter) would react the same way I have."

While members of the WGA negotiating committee met with studio heads during the strike, those meetings had the blessings of Counter because of the breakdown between the Writers Guild negotiators and the AMPTP.

"Frankly, the AMPTP bargaining committee was going nowhere and the Writers Guild couldn't bargain with them," Fabrick said. "The AMPTP elected essentially surrogates to deal with it."

SAG board member Christie said SAG's leaders would have to present "a real good case" to convince members to vote for a strike. And right now, he doesn't believe there is enough there to justify a strike vote. He also suggested that any bid to undercut AFTRA's pact by blocking ratification would further lessen SAG's chance that the membership would authorize a strike.

SAG and the AMPTP said after their meeting Thursday that talks will continue Monday.(partialdiff)