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Hollywood's other unions set the stage for the Screen Actors Guild, so what's the big problem?

June 14, 2008

Negotiations over Hollywood's last unfinished labor agreement are coming down to the wire, with a little more than two weeks left before the studios' contract with the Screen Actors Guild expires. So it's a particularly bad time for the long-simmering feud between SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to boil over. Leaders of SAG have been bashing the tentative deal that AFTRA's negotiating team struck with the studios May 28. They sent an e-mail to members (about 44,000 of whom are also in AFTRA) outlining the deal's shortcomings, saying its sister union fell short on salaries, residuals for new media and DVDs, and compensation for product placement. They also approved a $75,000 budget to fight the AFTRA deal and later held a rally and a town hall meeting with members to stoke opposition.

The clash caps an unusually acrimonious year for SAG, which represents movie and prime-time television actors, and AFTRA, which represents mainly cable TV, talk-show and radio performers. The latter decided to end almost three decades of joint negotiations with SAG after the guild allegedly helped actors on a daytime drama try to switch unions. SAG sat down first with the studios but was unable to reach a deal in lengthy talks. AFTRA then stepped in, reaching a contract that hewed closely to the ones already agreed to by the writers and directors guilds.

SAG's leadership now complains that its negotiating leverage would be undermined if AFTRA's members approved their deal. The unfortunate reality for the guild, however, is that its clout was weakened long ago. Rather than presenting a united front to the studios, the four main talent unions diverged on priorities and negotiating tactics. The comparatively hard-line approach of the Writers Guild of America resulted in a 100-day strike that the industry is still recovering from, while the more moderate stances of the Directors Guild of America and AFTRA led to relatively quick agreements. SAG, whose aggressive tone echoed the writers', is pushing for better terms than the rest of the industry has already accepted. But its leadership is in this unenviable position largely because of its decisions to delay the start of its negotiations and to promise members significantly more than other unions could deliver.

Rather than fighting AFTRA's deal, SAG negotiators should focus on extracting the best terms they can get, and do it quickly. They have another important round of negotiations to start soon with the companies that shoot commercials. Those talks, like the ones with the studios, present important issues related to new technology's impact on advertisers. SAG needs to focus on what remains to be done, not what AFTRA has already accomplished.

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