A campaign by the Screen Actors Guild to persuade members of a smaller rival union to vote down a new contract has foundered, an outcome that could weaken SAG's leverage in its negotiations with the Hollywood studios.
Members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists on Tuesday approved a new three-year, prime-time TV contract, dealing a blow to SAG leaders who had gambled heavily on defeating a contract they blasted as bad for actors.
The AFTRA vote -- widely viewed as a barometer of support for SAG negotiators -- doesn't eliminate the prospect of a strike, but it leaves the guild with fewer alternatives. The protracted negotiations are causing uncertainty throughout Hollywood, holding up feature film productions and casting a pall over the upcoming fall TV season.
"It's hard to not see this as a setback because they invested so much in this and drew a line in the sand," said David Smith, a labor economist at Pepperdine University. "It's probably going to limit their ability to negotiate for what they want."
SAG leaders could still seek a strike authorization vote from members, but that option is considered risky given the deteriorating economy and strike fatigue after the 100-day Hollywood writers walkout that ended in February.
"The town has been fairly terrorized this year and actors don't have more guts than the average person," veteran actor and former SAG President Ed Asner said during a meeting with TV critics on Tuesday. "They realize the tremendous cost. Probably, if push came to shove, most would vote against it. I myself would vote for it, but I would be in the minority as I usually am."
Not surprisingly, the clashing unions interpreted the vote by AFTRA members differently.
SAG declared a moral victory, noting that the 62.4% ratification vote was below the norm given that another AFTRA television contract was recently ratified by more than 90% of voting members.
"Clearly, many Screen Actors Guild members responded to our education and outreach campaign," SAG President Alan Rosenberg said.
Rosenberg also contended that results were skewed by the nonactors who voted. An AFTRA flier urged broadcasters to endorse the new deal even "if you haven't worked under this contract."
AFTRA leaders countered that broadcasters accounted for less than 10% of the union's 70,000 members, 52,000 of whom are actors. AFTRA did not report how many of its members voted. The 120,000-member SAG represents the vast majority of those working on prime-time TV shows and, unlike AFTRA, actors who work in feature films.
AFTRA President Roberta Reardon called SAG's actions "an unprecedented disinformation campaign" and praised actors for displaying "courage in the face of potential retribution by taking a stand against disunity." She called on the unions to revisit the possibility of merging and jointly negotiating an upcoming commercials contract.
The contract ratified Tuesday was modeled after similar pacts negotiated by directors and writers. Although the accord includes pay hikes for actors and establishes payments for programs streamed on the Internet, SAG contended it didn't meet such key bargaining goals as increasing residuals from DVD sales and ensuring that all Internet programs were covered by its contract.
SAG allocated as much as $150,000 toward persuading 44,000 joint members to reject the federation's contract, blanketing members with ads, e-mails and automated phone calls. AFTRA countered by telling members that voting down the contract would heighten the prospects of a strike.
The campaign opened a deep division among actors and has been a major distraction in SAG's negotiations with the studios. The two camps have failed to reach agreement on a new contract to replace one that expired June 30.
Talks will resume Thursday, when SAG is expected to respond to the studios' final offer, which was similar to the pact offered to AFTRA and included more than $250 million in gains above the existing contract, the studios said.
If, as expected, SAG rejects the final offer, the studios could declare an impasse, which would enable them to legally enforce their final proposed contract. The studios also could impose a so-called lockout, which would block actors from working and trigger what would amount to a strike. That, however, is viewed as a draconian measure because it would shut down most production, costing the studios dearly -- in addition to possibly creating sympathy for the actors.
Despite the outcome, SAG is unlikely to back down any time soon, said Jonathan Handel, a Los Angeles-based entertainment industry attorney. "SAG will be emboldened by the low yes vote achieved by AFTRA, and is likely to resist compromise" with the studios, he said.
Times staff writer Maria Elena Fernandez contributed to this report.