SAG's ploy has AFTRA brass furious

Union feud intensifies amid contract negotiations

The bad blood between SAG and AFTRA is boiling.

As SAG enters its 25th day of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, the union will hold a rally Monday morning at its Los Angeles headquarters for members.

While SAG bills the event as a "solidarity" rally, others in its Membership First faction are expected to use the gathering to speak out against the new primetime/TV contract that its sister union AFTRA will be sending to members for ratification.

In the meantime, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon plans to meet with AFL-CIO leader John Sweeney to discuss the clash between the two actor unions, which intensified Friday when SAG's national executive board voted 13-10 to spend $75,000 on educating members about the AFTRA deal.

In an e-mail to members Sunday, SAG president Alan Rosenberg outlined what he called contract gains that AFTRA did not get, and said that he and the union's negotiators are trying to win for SAG members. Among them were improvements in money and schedule breaks and a significant increase in the major role minimum; more background coverage and compensation; guild coverage and residuals for all original new media; the right to consent to product integration; improving DVD residuals; and an increase in mileage compensation for the first time in 30 years.

Rosenberg also told members that SAG believes the tentative AFTRA deal and its ratification -- which is expected to be voted on by July 7 -- is a distraction that the AMPTP is using "to delay significant progress in our negotiations."

On Thursday, the SAG sent AFTRA a letter asking that its national board vote to delay a ratification vote on the tentative contract.

"Delaying ratification of the AFTRA contract could benefit all actors," Rosenberg wrote to members Sunday. "AFTRA members too would benefit by increased leverage in our negotiations and through any favored nation clauses SAG might be able to achieve that would provide improvements in the AFTRA deal."

He added, "I assure you, this is not about union politics. It is about using our combined leverage to achieve the best terms possible for actors -- in both unions."

But AFTRA refused the request Friday, with a source close to the national board saying its members were furious over SAG's letter, calling it "blackmail."

Instead of postponing the vote, 91% of AFTRA's 76-member board voted in favor of sending the contract to members for ratification.

SAG is the largest of the actors unions, with about 120,000 members. AFTRA has 70,000, and the two performers' unions share about 44,000 members. For the past 27 years, the unions have jointly bargained the primetime/TV contract, known as Exhibit A. But tensions brewing in the past year between the unions resulted in AFTRA deciding to go it alone in contract negotiations.

On May 28, AFTRA reached its tentative agreement with the AMPTP, and its national board Friday voted to send that contract to its membership for ratification. SAG is in negotiations for its theatrical/TV contract. Both contracts expire June 30.

It's those dual cardholders who will be voting on the new deal that SAG is reaching out to in its efforts to dissuade ratification.

AFTRA in return has cautioned SAG that what it's doing might be illegal.

"Such unprecedented interference in the internal affairs of another union is the antithesis of good unionism," Reardon and AFTRA national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth wrote in response Friday to SAG's request. "We hope it will not be necessary to pursue legal remedies, but be aware that we would view any attempt by SAG or its leadership to undermine or interfere with our ratification process as a violation of both the law and the AFL-CIO constitution."

Reardon said Sweeney has been out of the country during the latest battle between the unions.

"In personal conversations I've had with him, he's indicated that it's not a good development," Reardon said of the SAG-AFTRA split.

"I hope the leadership of SAG put their attention where they need to put it," she added. "I hope they get a better deal than we got. They have (the entire) film world to handle. I hope they succeed, and that that's where their attention should be."

Asked what she hopes to gain in her conversation with Sweeney, Reardon said she wanted him to look at "exactly what our contract is, and what are options are. Our lawyers are looking at various situations."

Sources close to SAG said the vote to educate members on the AFTRA contract was divided between the West Coast members who are part of the Membership First faction, which had the majority, and East Coast members. "Basically, it was all the Membership First people embracing this idea and the others opposing it," said the source.

The locking of horns between the performers unions closed out a volatile week for SAG.

Last Monday, Rosenberg and SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen sat down for a private meeting with Sony's Michael Lynton and the studios' chief labor negotiator, Jean Bonini, and told the executives they would rally joint cardholders to oppose the AFTRA deal. But the execs were apparently unfazed by the strategy, telling the two that the best way to reach a deal was by negotiating with the AMPTP.

On Thursday, SAG board member and Membership First activist Susan Savage sent an e-mail to some members encouraging them to "do all we can to stop AFTRA from ratifying a bad deal that will affect ALL of us."

Savage concluded the e-mail with mention that George Clooney and Tom Hanks had called Rosenberg to "offer their total support."

The comment was interpreted by many to mean that Clooney and Hanks were onboard the fight against AFTRA, something their reps in statements to the press have said was untrue and fabricated. Savage has since apologized for the misunderstanding, noting that she meant to say that Hanks and Clooney are in support of SAG's overall negotiations, not the anti-AFTRA contract initiative.

"It's hard to think of anything that went well for them this week," said industry labor attorney Scott Witlin of Los Angeles' Akin Gump. "But they still have a chance to make a deal by the end of the month to avoid a strike."

Witlin characterized SAG's anti-AFTRA strategy as "desperate."

"This is their last-ditch effort to try to advance their goals not achieved by the WGA in their 100-day strike," he said. "They're interfering with the affairs of another union. They should not be doing this. If they are successful, they could end up with bigger problems."

Those include, he said, AMPTP members making claims against SAG for disrupting a contract with another union.

But Arlin Miller, a dual cardholder who operates the Web site, believes voting down the AFTRA contract would be a "win-win" situation for SAG.

"They can send a message to the AMPTP that it's not a good deal," he said. "And it would force AFTRA to go back to the bargaining table and get a better deal.

"I think, in the very least, every dual cardholder should vote after they look at the facts, look at the contract, look at what they'll be giving up, or, if they see it as a gain."

Another dual cardholder, Paul Christie, who also is a member of SAG's national executive committee, said any initiative to vote down a sister union's contract is "idiotic."

AFTRA's agreement includes a bump in actor rates over three years, jurisdiction over new media and retaining, for now, consent over the use of clips in new media for nonpromotional use.

AFTRA members will receive more details of the contract when they are asked to vote on ratifying it.

In an open letter Friday to members, AFTRA negotiating committee member David Basche wrote that the union "won a great contract," including a 10% increase in minimums over the contract term that was "far greater than the AMPTP wanted to agree to and were achieved only because we did not back down and stayed focused, calm and strong on the members' behalf."

"I think it's damn good, more than expected," he wrote, "and some of these increases are the first in almost a decade: hard won and well deserved."

Back Stage East news editor Andrew Salomon contributed to this report.