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SAG role is raising concerns

Its sparring with AFTRA has become a major distraction in talks with studios.

June 14, 2008|Richard Verrier and Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writers

When the Hollywood studios recently crafted a new contract with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, they were adapting an old script that had played well for them before.

A pact with directors last year paved the way for a similar settlement with writers that ended a 100-day strike last winter. Many hoped it would also lead to avoiding an actors strike this summer.

But if that was the studios' playbook, the Screen Actors Guild doesn't appear to be following it. In recent weeks many in Hollywood have become increasingly jittery that the powerful actors union and the studios will not have negotiated a new agreement when the current one expires June 30, resulting in actors working without a contract or -- worse -- a second and much more devastating entertainment industry strike this year.

The first sign of real trouble appeared last week when SAG's leaders decided to mount a risky campaign to oppose its smaller sister union's contract, which it contended sells actors short.

Animating the attack is a longtime feud over which union can lay claim to represent the casts of TV shows. The conflict is further aggravated by an upstairs/downstairs class rivalry in which the Hollywood-centric SAG -- which covers all movies and most of prime-time TV -- often disparages the less glamorous AFTRA, whose members also include radio announcers and actors who work in daytime television.

SAG's effort to torpedo AFTRA's contract, however, has raised new questions about the guild's own strategy for negotiating a deal on behalf of its 122,000 members. The sparring between the two unions has emerged as a major distraction in talks between studios and SAG, which have slowed to a crawl. They broke off after only 2 1/2 hours Friday.

SAG's campaign -- which targets 44,000 members who belong to both unions -- has further roiled the famously fractious union, including the guild's own negotiating committee.

Committee members from New York and other regional branches openly criticized their own leaders' plans to defeat the AFTRA accord, calling it a waste of guild money and likely to fail.

The campaign could cost as much as $150,000.

"I've never heard of a dual membership situation where one union is saying to vote down the contract of another," said Al Latham, a Los Angeles labor attorney and adjunct faculty member at USC's law school. "This is novel."

But vocal and public disagreement is a time-honored tradition at SAG.

"We have a robust democracy in this union and we've always had active dissent," said Doug Allen, the union's chief negotiator.

"I'm confident we have the unity to get the job done," he added, downplaying the rift on the negotiating committee. He cited a unanimous vote by the committee Friday afternoon pledging to achieve the "best possible contract for the benefit of all."

However, the infighting could undermine SAG's clout at the bargaining table and stands in stark contrast to the largely unified front presented by writers during their negotiations.

"The studios are going to see that [SAG's] position is weakened by the infighting, and that will make it more difficult for them to achieve the increases they want," said David Smith, a labor economist at Pepperdine University.

SAG President Alan Rosenberg, who earlier in the week publicly blasted the AFTRA accord as a "detriment to actors," declined to comment Friday.

Rosenberg and other SAG leaders have contended that the pact fails to meet some of SAG's key goals, including raising residuals that actors earn from DVD sales, giving them a say over how products are pitched in shows and guarantees that all programs created for the Web will be covered under their contract.

But SAG leaders fear that, unless they defeat the AFTRA accord, they will be at a disadvantage because producers would be more apt to make deals with the smaller union given its lower-cost contract.

SAG has bitterly complained that in recent years AFTRA has encroached on its turf by negotiating contracts in cable television that undercut its own deals. AFTRA has contended that its contracts are fair and in line with today's economic realities.

Matt Kimbrough, who chaired AFTRA's negotiating committee, said the contract offered a number of gains for actors and called the SAG criticisms unfounded.

"They treat us like an enemy rather than a sister union," he said. "We hope that SAG gets a good deal and, if they improve on it, that is a testament to their negotiating skills."

Regardless, SAG's options seem to be limited. The campaign against the AFTRA accord faces long odds because union members rarely vote down contracts negotiated by their leaders.

To strengthen its leverage, the guild could seek a strike authorization vote from members, a common tactic used by unions in negotiations. Rosenberg suggested in a meeting this week with talent managers that the union may yet take such a course.

So far, however, SAG has not exercised that option, perhaps because many working actors are reluctant to endure another strike. The guild would need 75% of voting members to authorize a strike. Still, the vast majority of SAG members do not earn a living acting and may be more inclined to support a walkout.

While studios have rushed to get their big movies finished by the end of the month, they have contingency plans for others that could be affected by a strike, including "Transformers 2" and "Angels & Demons," the sequel to "The Da Vinci Code."

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

claudia.eller@latimes.com

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