It’s Still Act One For SAG

When actors hear “lights, camera, action!” they know it’s time to act. For the actors union, a more apt phrase might be “lights, camera, inaction!”

The Screen Ac t o r Guild’s three-year contract with the studios expired June 30. But nearly four months later, talks between SAG and the Association of Motion Picture and Television Producers on a new three-year deal remain at a virtual standstill, with both sides still wide apart on the basic outlines of a possible agreement.

To be sure, SAG leaders have faced obdurate studios. AMPTP has been unwilling to give in to SAG requests for a far sweeter deal than what the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild of America achieved earlier this year in their contract talks. Knowledgeable observers think SAG president Alan Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen have over-reached in their demands. To many observers, SAG’s honchos have allowed themselves to be cornered. “They are like the Irish Setter on a 12- foot leash, who hopelessly winds himself around a tree and can’t get untangled,” says an official at one of the craft guilds.

What up to now has been a viewed as an irritating de facto strike by SAG could mutate into the real thing, perhaps by Thanksgiving. That depends on the outcome of a crucial meeting on October 17 and 18 in Los Angeles. That’s when the newly elected 71-member SAG board, narrowly dominated by a recently formed renegade faction, convenes for the first time. (Below the Line went to press before the weekend so the result of the conclave was not known at publication).

The recently-created “Unite for Strength” group now in the majority had challenged the negotiation stance of the previously dominant “Membership First” group, led by Rosenberg and national executive director Allen, who has spearheaded SAG’s strategy. The duo gave advance notice that they would ask the board to approve a vote by the guild’s 120,000 members to arm them with the weapon to call a strike, should they choose to go that route.

Yet another strike is the last thing anyone in Hollywood wants, especially when the entertainment industry is still recovering from the divisive 100-day walkout by WGA writers that ended last February 13 with an agreement. The increasingly precarious financial environment has made the prospect of a another disruptive strike especially unpalatable. “In these economic times, the notion of going out on strike is a little nutty,” says producer Laurence Mark. He reflects a view widely shared by both entertainment executives and members of craft guilds who fear once again becoming cannon fodder in a fight that doesn’t involve them.

A positive decision by the SAG board, where the recently mobilized Unite for Strength group holds a slim one-vote majority, would trigger a ballot by SAG’s members. Approval by over 75 percent of those voting is needed to provide the requested strike authorization. That’s a pretty formidable hurdle to overcome, which is why few think a strike authorization vote would be successful.

On the other hand, should the SAG board refuse to call for a strike authorization, one option that has been discussed is to ask for a federal mediator to step in to get the parties back to table—there haven’t been negotiations between SAG and AMPTP since July 16. AMPTP would have to agree to accept an outside mediator. The worst-case scenario is for SAG and AMPTP to still be wide apart when the New Year arrives.

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