Studios' 'final offer' safe for now

Despite economy, SAG has time -- but not much

When the AMPTP made what it calls its final offer to SAG on June 30, it came with a caution: The offer would remain on the table unless there's a drastic change in the economy.

With Wall Street plunging, that day may be here. Since the June 30 offer was made, Disney shares have fallen 9% -- and that's by far the least of the bunch. In that same frame, CBS is off 33%, News Corp. is down 29%, Time Warner is down 24%, and Viacom is off 23%.

Sources with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers said Monday that the offer will remain intact -- at least until Oct. 18, when the newly realigned SAG national board meets and votes on whether to bring a strike authorization vote to its membership.

If members are asked to give the board strike authorization, the AMPTP is likely to wait until the results of that vote are in. What that means to the industry is that the current stalemate between SAG and the AMPTP is likely to continue for weeks and could extend into November.

But SAG chief negotiator Doug Allen said it would be unfair for the AMPTP to take the final offer off the table -- despite its inadequacies by guild standards -- and punish the actors for the downturn by offering them less than what directors, writers and fellow thesps in AFTRA received.

"How is it fair for the AMPTP to espouse 'pattern bargaining' on the one hand, and to take an offer off the table, which has been made to other unions, on the other hand?" Allen said.

The union, afterall, was formed during the Great Depression when the studios asked actors to take a 50% pay cut, he added.

In any event, the worsening U.S. economy makes it all the more unlikely that the AMPTP -- which maintains that it is done bargaining -- will sweeten its offer to SAG.

Anne-Marie Johnson, a member of the SAG Hollywood board faction MembershipFirst, whose members control the majority of the negotiating committee, dismissed the economic downturn as a factor in the guild's strike authorization decision.

"The industry will remain very solvent and exceedingly healthy during any economic downturn," Johnson said recently. "That is what this industry is about." Johnson pointed to the Depression and recessions as examples of the entertainment industry doing well despite Wall Street suffering.

But economic conditions clearly have changed for the worse, which is why shares of the major media conglomerates have taken such a bath in recent weeks.

Sheryl Willert, a labor attorney at Williams Kastner in Seattle, agreed with Johnson that the economy is just one factor in a union's determining whether to strike. But she said that with the current situation, SAG needs to look at the economic landscape -- especially in California. The state has one of the nation's highest foreclosure rates, and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has asked for $7 billion to keep the government operational.

"It certainly should cause the members of SAG to step back and look at the opportunities they're giving up if they go on strike," Willert said.

Taking a strike authorization vote does not necessarily mean the guild is going to instantly go on strike. Rather, it can be used as a way to change the studio's perception that they have leverage.

"A strike authorization vote does not mean the guild is going to go on strike," Allen said. "A strike authrorization permits the national board to determine whether a strike is to be called and when, if necessary. A strike authorization was conducted for the recent basic cable and interactive contract negotiations and a strike was not called."

The AMPTP has said it's "unrealistic for SAG negotiators now to expect even better terms during this grim financial climate. This is the harsh economic reality, and no strike will change that reality."