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SAG seeks to rekindle bargaining with studios

September 30, 2008|Richard Verrier | Times Staff Writer

Seeking to jump-start stalled contract talks with the studios -- and to hang tough at the same time -- Screen Actors Guild leaders called on News Corp. President Peter Chernin and Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger to revive formal bargaining.

But the request was rebuffed by the studio executives, ending prospects of a resolution any time soon in the months-long stalemate.

In a letter sent Monday that was also addressed to the studios' chief negotiator, J. Nicholas Counter III, SAG President Alan Rosenberg and Executive Director Doug Allen said that actors were unhappy with the studios' "final offer" made in June and that putting it to a vote at this time would serve "no productive purpose."

The SAG leaders said they hoped that the studio executives would take note of the "news," alluding to a recent poll in which 87.3% of about 10,300 respondents urged the guild to reject the proposed contract and "fight" for a better deal. Although only about 10% of SAG's eligible members responded to the poll, guild officials believe the fact that the overwhelming majority of those did want a better deal indicates widespread support in the ranks.

"It is our fervent hope that this news will encourage you and your colleagues to re-engage in formal bargaining, with the exchange of proposals and compromise by both sides necessary to reach agreement. . . . What do you say; when can our committees meet face-to-face?"

But Counter, president of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, said in a statement, "We do not believe that it would be productive to resume negotiations at this time given SAG's continued insistence on terms which the companies have repeatedly rejected."

The guild's letter comes after weeks of unsuccessful efforts by SAG leaders to reignite negotiations, which broke off in early July. Amid mounting frustration over the logjam, guild leaders recently signaled to newly elected board members that the union might even seek to obtain a strike-authorization vote should the studios reject the latest overture.

Although unions often seek strike-authorization votes to gain leverage, the tactic could be highly risky in the current economic climate. Between the mortgage crisis devastating many homeowners and California's unemployment rate, which is at its highest level in 12 years, many people in Hollywood see SAG in a considerably weaker position than it was in before talks ended.

At the same time, if SAG had the backing of its members it could present a real threat to the movie and television industry by virtually shutting down production. The TV networks are still recovering from the effects of a three-month strike by writers this year.

Actors have been without a contract since June 30. The two sides are sharply at odds over how much actors would be paid for work distributed via the Internet and whether the union's contracts should cover all shows created for the Web.

Those two issues were singled out in the letter, which sounded a note of compromise along with a warning to studios that "if your intransigence continues, however, our choices become harder and fewer."

The studios previously dismissed the results of the union's poll as unrepresentative and accused guild leaders of falsely suggesting that they were engaged in meaningful back-channel talks. The studios have refused to improve upon the contracts already negotiated by writers, directors and a smaller actors union.

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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