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Where's Beef in SAG, AFTRA Strike Threat?

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Can a strike threat, or a strike itself, by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) really shake up the multibillion-dollar video game industry?

Last week, strike ballots were mailed to approximately 1,900 SAG and 1,000 AFTRA members with earnings under the unions' contract with the video game industry. The unions had continued to negotiate through mid-May with a handful of video game producers representing more than 50 companies that have signed the unions' Interactive Media Agreement. But after two extensions -- and bargaining that began on Feb. 15 -- the pact finally expired on Fri., May 13. Both SAG and AFTRA walked away from the table and are now leaving it to members who work under the pact to decide whether they want to strike.

Leading the negotiations for the producers has been longtime labor attorney Howard Fabrick. He didn't seem too upset by the unions' action.

"The game publishers don't expect any impasse to have long-term impact on their business," Fabrick said following the walkout. "New titles for the holiday season are mostly complete and, if necessary, the companies expect to find replacements for voice actors who elect not to work in the short and long term. They all expect business to continue as usual."

The unions have called for residuals for the use not only of actors' voices, but their likenesses and performances as well. But Fabrick has said, "The unions' demand for an equity stake, or residual structure, is unreasonable and not fair to the hundreds of people who often spend years developing a game."

The unions have acknowledged that work under a union contract represents only 10% to 15% of video game production. And video game producers have made clear that they can find talented nonunion actors to perform that voiceover work.

Stars and Buying Power

So where does SAG and AFTRA's strength lie in attempting to get what they want from the Interactive Media Agreement?

The unions saw some members rally recently at the E3 Game Expo at the Los Angeles Convention Center. Actor Michael Bell, the voice behind such best-selling games as "Metal Gear Solid 3" and "Doom," spoke of the value of the professional actor to the video game industry. He noted that nine of the top ten games of 2004 used union performers.

That's a point the unions may need to keep repeating to producers: Union performers mean top performances, which mean top moneymaking games.

But will that be enough for an industry that prides itself on steadily improving technology leading to bigger sales? What else can the unions do to really make an impact?

Some top video games also depend on movie stars' images and voices. Well-known actors visibly supporting the unions' cause would surely up the stakes. The producers can argue that they own the rights to the movies and the images in them, including the stars' likenesses. But a movie star voicing the unions' position on television could go a long way. In some cases, top actors might be able to step away from projects, taking their images and voices with them. Of course, placing union before personal profit would take courage.

Then there's the AFL-CIO, the mother ship of the entertainment unions. When SAG and AFTRA felt threatened during their 2000 commercials strike, they called on the huge union. It responded by calling for a boycott of the products made by Procter & Gamble. The unions considered P&G to be a major enemy that was trying to break the strike. The threat of the AFL-CIO's more than 13 million members turning away from P&G products proved too much, and the ad industry settled the strike within a week.

Whether or not SAG and AFTRA members vote to strike, the unions could still go to school on that 2000 coup. Video game producers would certainly sit up and take notice if John Sweeney, the AFL-CIO's president, again stood in front of cameras at a press conference and this time declared a boycott on specific video games made by the producers who refused to agree to terms with the actors' unions.

And Sweeney might find the timing important. He has been a strong supporter of SAG and AFTRA's attempts at merger, and coming to their aid over video games could lead him to urge them again to try to merge.

Those are some of the possibilities that lie ahead for SAG and AFTRA. While only about 1% to 2% of their members actually work under the video game pact, solidarity means that an entire union and its affiliates look for ways to support their fellows. And that can lead to big numbers, both in members and in money.

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