In a sign that the negotiations between the Hollywood craft guilds and the studios remain on a positive track, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) are set to return to the bargaining table on April 12 to hammer out a new three-year contract.
The planned resumption of negotiations was not officially announced by the two parties. But the leadership of the International Cinematographers Guild, IATSE Local 600, put out a short message to members that it was “pleased to report that, at the request of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), the IATSE has agreed to resume Basic Agreement negotiations on April 12, 2012.”
Last Monday, the pause button was pushed on the first round of talks, which began on March 7, after a marathon 17-hour negotiating session ended without a tentative deal on a new Hollywood Basic Agreement. IATSE and AMPTP, in a joint statement, said they needed “additional time to review data before resuming talks at a later time.” These talks involved contracts for the 15 IATSE locals, representing cinematographers, art directors, costume designers and other below-the-line specialists.
The biggest issue on the table involves how to pay for the rapidly rising cost of health coverage and to pump up depleted pension investments for members represented by IATSE over the next three-year contract stretching from mid-2012 to mid-2015. According to consultant estimates, the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans face a funding shortfall of as much as $500 million over that span for the workers represented in the talks.
The quick return to bargaining bodes well for a final settlement to be reached fairly soon. Although the current contract doesn’t expire until July 31, the negotiating calendar is shorter than it seems. Without a firm agreement in sight by around mid-May, studios are likely to consider putting off new shoots if they decide principal photography on a project can’t be completed by the end-of-July. And crew members on those shoots would face layoffs. So the pressure is on to reach a deal by May 15 or thereabouts.
In an indication of how seriously both sides are taking the negotiations, there was no timeout taken when a power outage hit AMPTP headquarters for 2 ½ hours. “Talks continued despite darkened rooms and no air circulation,” according to an insider blog kept for members of IATSE Local 728, the guild for lighting technicians.
There were several developments before the talks were halted that were considered to be encouraging, according to the Local 728 blog. “The major issue of how to fund our healthcare plan without causing major modifications was in reach,” it says. But AMPTP still “had philosophical issues with the proposal.” On a positive note, the negotiators for the studios also had “withdrawn a majority of its original 34-page proposal,” it said. But both sides “remain far apart” on the remaining issues of wages, working conditions and pension care benefits.
In the first stage of talks already completed, AMPTP met with negotiators of individual guilds to discuss demands specific to each union, much of it about work rules. In the next round, IATSE hones in on wage and benefit issues and how to bridge the $500 million health and pension gap.
An AMPTP proposal to introduce “cross utilization and interchangeability,” permitting members of one guild to be requested to carry out tasks on a set that now are the exclusive purview of another guild, was a non-starter, especially for the lighting electricians union.
Local 728 business representative Patric Abaravich heading his negotiating team pointed out that putting into place worker substitution rules “would not only do away with the production benefits of advanced safety and specialized training courses, but would lead to increased costs due to inefficiency, increases in liability, injury, workers comp cases and even accidental death,” according to the blog. “When the dozens of labor relations lawyers on the AMPTP side of the table heard those words, many heads snapped up from their laptops to pay closer attention.”
AMPTP will begin parallel negotiation this week with Teamsters Local 399 and the Basic Crafts (plumbers, electrician, plasterers). The Teamsters decided on their last contract round to sign for only two years so they would be on the same negotiating cycle as the IATSE locals. The idea is to attempt to leverage the power of both unions in dealing with AMPTP. Teamsters are also participants in the Motion Picture Industry Pension & Health Plans.
Last week, IATSE president Matthew Loeb tried to reassure members that IATSE wasn’t about to cave in but would “hold the line” once talks resume “on health benefits, pension benefits and working conditions.”
At a meeting with Local 80, the grips union, Loeb last fall talked about his goal in the negotiations to come. “We’re going to be asking for money, lots of it,” he said. How much money he winds up getting for the guilds and what tradeoffs the studios will demand in return remains to be seen. But the outlook for reaching a new Basic Agreement sooner rather than later has improved now that negotiations are scheduled to resume next week.