SAG, AFTRA Storm Seethes

The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists are suddenly experiencing a rift which endangers their 20-year practice of co-negotiating major contracts.

AFTRA leaders are also accusing SAG Hollywood leaders of attempting to take control of upcoming feature-film and TV contract negotiations, trying to force any power out of the hands of leaders at SAG/New York or AFTRA. Negotiations are scheduled to begin June 1 for the pact which expires June 30.

Certainly there's a potential for it leading to problems between the two unions, Greg Hessinger, AFTRA's national executive director, told Back Stage when discussing the two unions' disagreement on Monday. There is the possibility that someone within SAG could respond by seeking to terminate the Phase One agreement, which has governed negotiations in the areas of union jurisdiction for the past 20 years.

The result of termination of Phase One, Hessinger added, if it's legally permissible, would be that the two unions would negotiate separately, and the performer would get the lowest common denominator.

Asked to clarify how actors would garner less money, Hessinger explained, The likelihood is that producers, in areas of joint jurisdiction, where they generally have a choice if something is covered under a SAG or AFTRA contract, would utilize one with more favorable numbers for the producer. He added that the 20-year Phase One agreement is exactly the scenario the unions have used to keep producers from getting the upper hand.

The two unions have co-negotiated major contracts since reaching the Phase One agreement in 1981.

Battle Comes to Light

The jousting between SAG and AFTRA became visible earlier this week with AFTRA's public acknowledgement that SAG had asked its sister union to reduce its number of negotiators in the upcoming feature film-TV contract talks. AFTRA's national board over the weekend had officially refused SAG's request, a catalyst for Hessinger to openly discuss the internal problems.

SAG has appointed 13 of its members, led by William Daniels, SAG's national president, to negotiate the new contract. Hessinger said that, traditionally, both SAG and AFTRA each have sent 13 negotiators into the talks, but that SAG recently asked AFTRA to only send four.

Hessinger noted that, of SAG's 13 negotiators, nine are from SAG/LA, and four from SAG/NY. You take SAG/NY's four and add to our four, and it's nine to eight in SAG/LA's favor, meaning the Western contingent could control any voting within the negotiating team.

Clearly our board perceived their proposal as one that was thinly disguised to grant political control of the entire negotiation process to the Hollywood SAG contingent, Hessinger said.

Asked who specifically had contacted AFTRA on behalf of SAG, Hessinger replied, It came from John McGuire, but clearly he was delivering the message from the current administration.

McGuire is SAG's assistant national executive director. The current administration would be Daniels and his Performers Alliance slate, which swept into office in late '99. Their base is in Hollywood.

Hessinger was even more blunt in a later interview with The Hollywood Reporter, in which he said, I understand that there will be a motion made at the next SAG board meeting, led by the Performers Alliance, to terminate Phase One. But we remain hopeful that the full SAG board will recognize the wisdom that was demonstrated by leaders 20 years ago in deciding that performers are best represented by a unified front.

Back Stage's calls to SAG's Daniels were not returned by press time.

Lisa Scarola, president of SAG/NY, had only a brief response to Hessinger's accusations of SAG/LA attempting to wrest negotiations control from SAG/NY: That's his opinion.

THR quoted a SAG/LA board member and Performers Alliance supporter, who didn't want to be identified, as saying, The last TV and theatrical contract was not in the best interest of actors, and it was shoved down our throats by AFTRA. Besides, AFTRA has zero work under this contract.

Greg Krizman, SAG's communications spokesman in Hollywood, told Back Stage on Tuesday that the anonymous board member's statements were from my own perspective, one board member out of 105's opinion, and it's unsourced. So you'll have to take that for what it's worth. However, Krizman did acknowledge that SAG had asked AFTRA to cut back its number of negotiators.

Two SAG/LA board members, requesting anonymity, told Back Stage on Tuesday afternoon that the Phase One agreement isn't really an issue. There's never been a discussion about ending Phase One, one board member said. There were only comments in a board meeting by one person about the sovereignty of the contract.

The reality, the two board members agreed, is that most of the work performed under the film-TV pact goes to SAG/LA, and SAG/NY has seen an increase over the last year. AFTRA has none, the two members said. The effort to get AFTRA to reduce its number of negotiators was simply an attempt to get the union to recognize the realities of who benefits from the contract.

McGuire contacted Back Stage at press time to both explain SAG's policy for selecting its own negotiators and to clarify his discussions with AFTRA on the negotiation cutback issue.

McGuire said SAG's division of nine negotiators from SAG/LA, three from SAG/NY, and one from the branches was based on the guild's previous-year job activity under the contract.

As for Phase One, he said, It is certainly a misstatement [by AFTRA's Hessinger] and maybe a misunderstanding that SAG has decided to terminate Phase One. That subject was not discussed at all before the board of directors, and if a board member made comments, he's speaking only for himself.

One thing SAG does want to do, I believe, is relook at the Phase One document, which was put in place quite a few years ago. The dynamics of what has happened with production has changed in that time, and we want to look at what's changed. Looking at the number of negotiating committee members between SAG and AFTRA would be appropriate to do at this point.

Hessinger's View

AFTRA's Hessinger told Back Stage, There's no question that SAG represents the overwhelming majority of earnings under the contract. However, that is nothing new. And it is undeniable that the pattern that is established in this negotiation will directly impact our network code negotiations in November, which is our largest contract.

Hessinger added that the feature film-TV pact actually carries over as a part of AFTRA's network agreement. He said the two unions actually negotiate two separate pacts with the film studios and networks during the film-TV talks. SAG's pact is called the TV-theatrical agreement; AFTRA's is referred to as Exhibit A of the network code.

Hessinger said SAG/LA's attempt to seize control of the negotiations sets a dangerous precedent for a lot of reasons. It undermines the cooperation that has existed between the two unions, and attempts to undo what has been a very, very effective process for a long time, without any justification.

The proposal also ignores the reality, Hessinger added, that the committee members that AFTRA has chosen for this negotiation are predominantly members of both unions who perform work under the contract.

He continued: The most recent experience of the two unions, in the commercials contract negotiations, was that AFTRA members contributed to the process, yet were largely deferential to the concerns of Hollywood SAG members in recognition of their large share of earnings. The unions were able to maintain their united front.

Asked if that united front was real or merely public image, Hessinger replied, It really was the case. It was a very effective committee.

Hessinger also told THR regarding the current negotiators and Phase One issues, The fault is SAG's. The issue would have been solved by the merger, which was defeated by SAG.

SAG and AFTRA both attempted for 10 years to unite, a merger which AFTRA approved two years ago, but SAG voted down. The two unions then agreed to meet in leadership summits to assure their working together on mutual issues, such as co-negotiating major contracts.

Hessinger also told Back Stage that he faulted SAG for ending the summit process. He said SAG had promised to return to the summit meetings after the commercials strike, but reneged on that.

McGuire disagreed, saying, We have not terminated the summit discussions unilaterally or otherwise. We had said we would resume them after the commercials negotiations, but got delayed by the strike. We're trying to find out how to devote time to those meetings in lieu of the upcoming negotiations.

One of the two SAG/LA board members told Back Stage, Our leadership's job is to go out and create the best contract we can, just as we did in the commercials contract. To have AFTRA make an issue of negotiators while the Writers Guild is in the midst of negotiations is disappointing. The Writers Guild is negotiating a contract that will have an immense impact on our negotiations. AFTRA's trying to create a perceptual problem can only help the AMPTP.

The AMPTP is the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining agent for the studios and networks in the feature film-TV contract talks.

The Writers Guild and AMPTP, in the second week of scheduled two-weeks of negotiations, entered Monday with discussion focused on residuals including foreign; made-for-basic cable; reuse on basic cable; videocassettes and DVDs; Fox, The WB and UPN; made-for-pay TV, minimums, pension and health and animation. Talks were continuing at press time Tuesday.