BY ANDREW SALOMON
The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have stepped up their war of words over basic-cable jurisdiction and about which union is better serving actors, broadening an already expansive divide between two labor groups that face major contract negotiations with producers and advertisers during the next 12 months.
The fall issue of SAG's magazine, Screen Actor, featured a comprehensive letter from SAG national executive director Doug Allen that closely examines some of AFTRA's basic-cable contracts and argues that the contracts provide lower residual payments and lesser pension and health benefits than does SAG's standard deal for similar programs.
Though SAG president Alan Rosenberg and board members of the guild's Hollywood division have made similar allegations for the past few years, this is the first time the argument has been advanced with figures from specific contracts and in such a detailed way. In his letter, a copy of which was obtained by Back Stage before the issue was mailed Oct. 15, Allen asserts that actors are paid 13–53 percent less on some AFTRA-covered shows than they would be if those programs were organized by SAG.
"Lowering the bar through competition between unions is rarely a good idea," Allen wrote in his 12-page report that featured multicolored charts and graphs. "Doing so now is particularly ill-considered and sends a divisive message to producers as we prepare for landmark negotiations in 2008."
SAG and AFTRA bargain jointly for their two most lucrative contracts: the one for network TV and film, which expires in June 2008, and the one for commercials, which expires in October 2008. More than 40,000 performers have dual membership.
In an interview with Back Stage, AFTRA national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth said of Allen's letter, "There is a lot in it that is incorrect, inaccurate…and it is very problematic." AFTRA president Roberta Reardon has also drafted an article of her own, to run in AFTRA Magazine within the next three weeks, which will say SAG's "one size fits all" contract for basic cable has resulted in 46 percent of those guild-covered shows being shot in Canada.
"AFTRA is providing more steady union jobs for more union actors in this country," Reardon wrote. "If the work isn't produced here, American performers don't have a shot to get it."
So acute is the situation within the performers' unions that the SAG political leadership is once again riven by coast. The hard-line stance against AFTRA, spearheaded by the guild's Hollywood division, is opposed by the New York and regional branches, which want the two unions to merge. That initiative has failed twice since 1999 because of opposition in Hollywood.
Rosenberg and former SAG New York president Paul Christie attempted to unify the guild during Rosenberg's first term, but those efforts appear to have fallen apart in a matter of weeks. "Doug Allen seems to be hell-bent on a path that we all think is basically suicidal and is putting us in an adversarial war with AFTRA," Christie told Back Stage.
In the Sept. 6 issue of Back Stage, Christie said of East-West relations, "It's been better than it's been in a long time." Though Christie relinquished his leadership posts in New York when he chose not to run for re-election, he kept his national board seat and is a major political insider in New York. Asked if there have been any talks among the various factions of the performers unions, he said, "We're beyond the point now where there's any sane communication. None of the discussions that I'm involved with are good.... There is no credibility between New York and Los Angeles."
Sam Freed, who succeeded Christie as New York president and 2nd national vice president in last month's elections, declined to comment.
In his letter, Allen examines aspects of three AFTRA basic-cable contracts—for the shows Army Wives (Lifetime), Dirt (FX), and Minor Accomplishments of Jackie Woodman (IFC). For Army Wives, Allen said guest performers (known as day players) receive residuals totaling $1,100.55 over six years for one episode, compared to $1,343.43 under SAG contracts. For the other two shows, he examined how much a series regular and a day player earn over the course of three seasons. He found that under an AFTRA contract, a series regular on Dirt would earn $162,518.40 in that time, and a day player appearing in one episode each year would make $3,111.90; a SAG contract would provide $190,776.96 and $3,536.94. For Minor Accomplishments, a series regular would earn $72,336 under AFTRA versus $110,915.20 under SAG; for day players the figures would be $2,277 (AFTRA) against $3,491.40 (SAG).
In addition to her article that will run in AFTRA Magazine, Reardon has drafted a letter that excoriates Allen's report. "Mr. Allen's article is replete with… omissions of fact, manipulated data, revisionist history, and hyperbolic conclusions," she wrote in the draft, a copy of which was obtained by Back Stage. According to a source who requested anonymity, the letter will be sent to union members after Screen Actor is delivered this week.
Reardon does not address Allen's analysis of the residual payments but asserts that AFTRA's organizing strategy ultimately aids actors. "Approaches have evolved with time, but each evolution has succeeded in raising pay and conditions for performers as the cable business has changed."
After hearing about Allen's report the last week of September, the boards of SAG's New York and regional divisions also composed a response, which they sent to Allen Oct. 4. "Your position as national executive director of SAG does not entitle you to make a move of this kind without the express consent of the national board, which is solely responsible for guild policy…. If you insist on releasing the document…without proper authority, we will have no choice but to respond accordingly."
The letter, a copy of which was obtained by Back Stage, did not specify what those consequences would be. It is doubtful the New York–regional coalition could force Allen out, because the Hollywood branch has a majority of the votes on the national board and is pleased with his aggressive push against AFTRA since he began his job at the beginning of the year.
Rosenberg told Back Stage he recently had a party at his house in Los Angeles for high-profile members of both unions. The attendees, who included Warren Beatty, were "overwhelmingly supportive of Doug Allen," Rosenberg said. He suggested that the Hollywood division would take its campaign to the "44,000 joint cardholders" of SAG and AFTRA and that those members would decide the issue.
Surpassing the political leadership and carrying the fight to the members also appears to be AFTRA's strategy. It has held high-profile gatherings of its own since Labor Day, according to spokesman John Hinrichs, and out of those meetings more than 250 joint cardholders drafted a "statement of unity." AFTRA then bought ad space in Back Stage, The Hollywood Reporter, and Daily Variety and ran the statement. Among the signatories were Emmy winners Bradley Whitford and Camryn Manheim, Tonight Show host Jay Leno, and Vivica A. Fox. "We, as members of [AFTRA and SAG]," the statement read, "appeal to our fellow actors to come together with one strong voice through both of our unions as negotiations approach."
Based on the tenor of the current situation, the negotiations might arrive before the unity.