Can a Divided SAG Stand Up to AMPTP?

Union actors continue to weather a tumultuous end to 2007 as the Writers Guild of America's strike -- now in its sixth week -- shuts down more productions and Broadway rebounds after the stagehands' walkout concluded. But stage and screen performers are in for more upheaval in 2008 -- a watershed year in which Actors' Equity Association and the Screen Actors Guild will renegotiate their most lucrative contracts with producers, possibly at the same time.

Dates have not been set for either union to begin talks with its employers, represented on Broadway by the League of American Theatres and Producers; in Hollywood by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers; and in the commercial realm by the Joint Policy Committee, the negotiating arm for advertisers and advertising agencies. However, there is little time to waste. Equity's Production Contract expires June 29, 2008; SAG's TV/theatrical deal expires June 30, 2008; and its Commercials Contract is up Oct. 29, 2008.

Negotiators for Equity and SAG will have to determine how they can use the recent strikes to their advantage. John Connolly, executive director of Equity and former national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, said he hasn't begun strategizing, and Equity committees are currently determining what will be on the union's agenda during the talks.

The WGA's strike is more directly aligned with SAG's agenda, which will focus on obtaining residuals for new-media work. The WGA has paved the way for SAG in that regard by clearly publicizing the importance of new-media residuals. SAG leaders and members are also getting a valuable education in labor relations by unequivocally backing the writers, observing their negotiations, and marching alongside them on the picket lines. "Their fight is our fight," SAG national executive director Doug Allen said of the WGA's strong stance in seeking new-media residuals.

But the very public bad blood between SAG's East and West coast divisions could prove to be a bigger problem for guild negotiators, headed by Allen, when they sit across the table from the AMPTP. Actors may be ready to rumble with producers over new media, but the union could present a much weaker defense if the ire that has erupted over AFTRA's basic-cable contracts and the SAG-AFTRA bargaining agreement known as Phase One is still in the air.

All Aboard

Steve Diamond, who teaches labor relations at the Santa Clara University School of Law and is a former candidate to be SAG's national executive director, said it will be crucial for SAG to present a united front. "In a time period when SAG really has the opportunity to learn and to prepare, [it] seems to be caught up in internecine battles over other issues," he said. "There's a train heading straight for you, and that train is going to get bigger and bigger and move faster and faster. You have to be ready to meet it."

Diamond noted that, like SAG, the WGA membership has been politically divided into East and West camps, but quelling those disagreements was instrumental to building their strength. "In the year running up to the writers guild strike, you did not see the level of acrimony and division within the [WGA] leadership that is currently affecting SAG. I think the failure to resolve those issues could have a significantly negative effect on their ability to meet the challenge that the industry presents," Diamond said. "You just wonder why the new [SAG] officers and staff leadership hasn't been able to provide the direction that the organization needs to resolve those issues, because that's what they're really hired to do."

Divisions between SAG and AFTRA, who will act as co-negotiators on the TV/Theatrical and Commercials contracts, have contributed to SAG infighting. Allen and other SAG officials have objected to AFTRA's claim on basic-cable programs, contending such work is beyond AFTRA's jurisdiction. In a letter published in the fall 2007 issue of Screen Actor magazine, Allen examined a handful of AFTRA contracts with basic-cable producers, which are negotiated individually, with SAG's TV/Theatrical contract, which covers all TV and film projects. He found that performers' rates and residuals in AFTRA's contracts are significantly less than what SAG offers. AFTRA officials have said their union has the right to organize any show shot digitally. AFTRA hasn't addressed the issue of pay rates specifically, but officials have said they organized shows that previously were nonunion and offered lower rates to compete with tax incentives offered overseas.

A related argument has arisen within SAG's ranks regarding Phase One, the unions' 26-year-old joint agreement that gives AFTRA an equal number of seats on SAG's negotiating committees and vice versa. At the guild's national board meeting in July, the Hollywood division, which has the majority of seats on the board, voted to institute bloc voting, in which the votes of every SAG member on the negotiating committee during contract talks would be cast in favor of the majority position. The move will unilaterally change the voting rules for contract talks.

Roberta Reardon, AFTRA national president, wrote in October in a press release: "The time is long past for SAG to affirm the letter and spirit of Phase One and reverse its decision to institute 'bloc voting,' a decision which effectively terminates the Phase One agreement." Allen fired back, stating in a press release, "Screen Actors Guild remains committed to joint bargaining under the Phase One agreement. Any assertion that Screen Actors Guild has violated Phase One is completely inaccurate."

The Coasts Are Clear

SAG's New York and regional divisions have taken a more sympathetic position toward AFTRA, defending its right to organize basic-cable shows and disagreeing with bloc voting. SAG 2nd vice president Sam Freed fired another shot across the bow last week, claiming the Hollywood-based publishers of the guild's internal magazine, Screen Actor, refused to publish his letter challenging Allen's position in the 2007 winter issue.

Freed and his supporters placed an ad in the Dec. 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter titled "A Message From the Members of the NY Division Board of Screen Actors Guild," which stated, "Members of a political faction in Hollywood censored [Freed's] letter. Seems they believe that the membership is only entitled to see or hear their point of view. Consequently, this ad is the only way to make Mr. Freed's thoughts widely available to the members." The letter Freed submitted to Screen Actor followed.

In it, Freed criticized Allen and SAG president Alan Rosenberg for waging an "all-out jurisdictional war" against AFTRA. "All the finger pointing does nothing to move our unions toward a solution to this competition," Freed wrote. "We are on the verge of splitting our two unions apart. The agreement which has protected actors' interests and allowed our two unions to successfully negotiate major contracts together, the Phase One agreement, is under assault." He concluded, "If Phase One ends, decades of cooperation between SAG and AFTRA end. Don't let that happen."

One of Freed's supporters, SAG New York board member Sue-Anne Morrow, said Freed took out the ad because "it was extremely important to get [his letter] to the membership. Our union has a tradition of always faulting in the direction of greater rather than lesser democracy. This new attempt to stifle dissension everywhere it's seen is frightening to me as an elected representative." She declined to comment about how infighting might affect the upcoming negotiations.

Allen told Back Stage the matter was an internal issue between Freed and the National Editorial Subcommittee, which reviews and approves the vice presidents' letters and other copy for Screen Actor. Allen said he has not been involved in editing or selecting the content for the magazine. Allen and SAG executive director of communications Pamela Greenwalt said the subcommittee approves much of the content submitted for the magazine and reviews anything that is stated as fact rather than opinion or that is considered inappropriate. They said the committee requested additional modifications to the letter but Freed declined to continue that process, resulting in the subcommittee's declining to publish the letter. The letters written by the national president, national secretary-treasurer, and national executive director are not reviewed by the subcommittee.

Allen said public differences between SAG's national headquarters and some members of its New York division will not interfere with next year's negotiations with the AMPTP; the solidarity guild members have shown in supporting WGA members demonstrates their unity where bargaining with the employers is concerned.

Allen added that he and Rosenberg have sat in on a number of the WGA-AMPTP negotiation sessions, and SAG continues to research new media and educate the membership on the issue. He declined to say whether dates to begin talks with the AMPTP have been set but said there are several possible dates for starting talks.

Andrew Salomon contributed to this report.

Lauren Horwitch can be reached at lhorwitch@backstage.com.