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Act now to avoid a strike

October 21, 2008

Hollywood's largest actors union, which has been working without a contract for nearly four months, may finally have found a way to bring the major film and TV studios back to the bargaining table. The Screen Actors Guild's board of directors agreed Sunday to ask a federal mediator to intervene in the negotiations. If the studios agree -- and they should -- the result would be the first formal talks between the two sides since their contract expired June 30.

The recent history of Hollywood's labor talks doesn't inspire a lot of confidence in this latest turn of events. A federal mediator was brought in to aid the Writers Guild and the studios just before their contract expired last year, but it was soon apparent to both sides that he couldn't help bridge the gap. Part of the problem was the mediator's unfamiliarity with Hollywood's intricate economics. A deal came months later -- after the Directors Guild reached its own agreement and the writers had spent more than three months on strike -- when the chief executives at a handful of studios took over the talks.

The studios' immediate response to the actors' announcement doesn't give much reason for optimism either. In a truculent news release, the studios' negotiating group warned: "There is simply no justification for SAG to expect a deal that is in excess of what the other guilds negotiated in better economic times." But the studios haven't rejected the call for a mediator, at least not yet. And there are good reasons for both sides to view this move as the last chance to avert another damaging strike that no one wants.

Both sides need the kind of reality check that a mediator can provide. SAG's negotiators have made no notable headway with the studios, despite a series of efforts to show their members' resolve. Clearly, they haven't found a way to extract a better deal than did the writers, directors or the rival actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Nor have the studios convinced SAG's negotiating team that the deal they offered is a good one, or even the best one available.

A mediator won't change matters if each side thinks the point of the exercise is to persuade the other to capitulate. The fact is, the studios and actors need help bargaining with each other, and an independent expert in negotiating is a good source for that kind of assistance. It's not a chance to start the negotiations over -- they're well past that point. But it is an opportunity to give the negotiators a better view of the rut they're in and, with good faith from both sides, help them find a way out of it.

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