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SAG to Meet Friday to Plan Against AFTRA Deal

Strikewatch_blog The Screen Actors Guild will hold a special session of its National Executive Committee Friday to strategize how the guild might defeat the ratification of the prime-time TV deal recently agreed to by producers and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, according to industry sources familiar with the situation.

SAG and AFTRA used to bargain together on major contracts until late March, when a bitter feud resulted in the suspension of their joint agreement, known as Phase One. About 44,000 actors belong to both unions. SAG officials, including national president Alan Rosenberg and national executive director Doug Allen, want to persuade the joint members to vote against the contract, according to the sources, who are privy to SAG's current TV/film negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

AFTRA's national board is expected to approve the contract at meetings Friday and Saturday. If it does, the deal will be sent to members for their approval. A simple majority is required for passage.

Asked about the guild's executive committee meeting, SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt said, "We have scheduled a special session Friday to update the NEC on the status of negotiations." The NEC comprises Rosenberg; Secretary-Treasurer Connie Stevens; vice presidents Kent McCord (Hollywood), Sam Freed (New York), and Steve Fried (Regional Branch Division); and national board members from Hollywood, New York, and the regional branches.

A SAG official, who requested anonymity, also stated, "Any speculation to the contrary [of Greenwalt's statement] is absolutely false."

AFTRA and the AMPTP reached a tentative agreement May 28. SAG officials have made no public statements about the deal, other than to say they were studying it and they had been briefed on the particulars by AFTRA officials. However, other industry sources have told Back Stage that Rosenberg and Allen met with top executives of Sony Pictures Monday and told them that SAG would oppose the contract. The executives, chairman Michael Lynton and chief labor negotiator Jean Bonini, told Rosenberg and Allen that contract issues should be resolved in negotiations with the AMPTP.

It is not certain what SAG finds objectionable about AFTRA's deal. The federation was able to increase salary minimums by an average of 3.3 percent per year. For major roles, the annual increases average 4.3 percent over the life of the contract, and guest stars working three days will receive an 11 percent increase in 2009.

A Los Angeles-based actor who requested anonymity stated that the wage hikes weren't high enough, and were part of a much larger problem facing middle-class members, those who earn between $28,000 and $100,000 a year. As an example, he said he earned $600 for a day's work in 1988. His most recent job for the same day's work was $750. "Our lack of pursuing adequate minimums has caught up to us," he said.

When asked how AFTRA could make up for 20 years' of lost time in one negotiation, the actor responded, "If you reach for the stars, you might hit the top of the mountain. If you go in as AFTRA does and reach for the top of the hill, and you get it and say, 'Oh look we got it,' you've failed. Even if [the raises] keep up with inflation, you haven't made it one step further."

Also, some partisans of Membership First, SAG's dominant political party that favors a tough stance against producers, have complained that AFTRA compromised on the right of consent regarding the use of clips on the Internet, even though the deal it accepted is identical to the one SAG offered to producers in earlier talks.

A SAG source who is close to the negotiating team and requested anonymity said that Rosenberg, Allen, and Membership First have no specific objections to the AFTRA deal, just AFTRA; essentially, they want to defeat the deal to cover themselves politically. "They've boxed themselves into a corner at every turn," the source said. "They've got nowhere to go. There's no Plan B. There's no plan at anytime. They are the ones that enabled this to happen. They have no leg to stand on. There never is one. You ask them what the plan is and they say, 'AFTRA sucks.' Okay, fine. Tell me what the plan is."

There is a debate about whether SAG has the legal right to campaign against AFTRA's contract. Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney at the Los Angeles firm TroyGould and who has represented the Writers Guild of America, said AFTRA and the AMPTP would have little recourse to stop the campaign, because SAG has a First Amendment right to speak to its own members about a contract that affects them.

However, the SAG source replied, "There's a difference between freedom of speech and using union resources to undermine another union's operation. It's one [legal battle] I'd be pretty interested to see play out."

Nevertheless, an AMPTP source said the producers just want to get a deal, and probably wouldn't want to step in the middle of a union battle.

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Too bad the M-F'ers don't have enough critical distance to understand how pathetic and inept they look. They're not doing us any favors by screwing around, all they're doing is costing us work.

Let's look at the issues actors are concerned about in the proposed AFTRA deal.

While it protects work already in the can, it provides no clip use protection for actors signing new AFTRA contracts. This means the new standard AFTRA contract will include a clip giveaway clause. The actor can take it or leave it. Unless the actor is Glenn Close or Courtney Cox-Arquette, in practice this means the actor's going to sign it, because they know there are six others behind who will if they won't.

AFTRA would give the moguls a 17/24 day New Media window. This represents a huge rollback in practice, as what we currently know as television is already being migrated to the Internet. As current technologies like IPTV are more widely implemented, current broadcast and cable television networks are going to be delivering their product to their markets via Internet connections, and paying actors a whole lot less in residuals.

More onerous still, the AFTRA deal gives the moguls a $300k/$500k New Media exemption. This means the studios and networks would be free to fund non-union backdoor television pilots, and just call them New Media. They'll test the pilots with the unpaid actors on the Internet, pick up the ones they like for production. For the non-name actors, working or new, after giving away their talent for free and helping sell the series, there's no guarantee they'll be picked up for the paying gig.

Current working actors will feel pressured to do free work on pilots in the hope of being cast if it goes to series. In practice, this proposed agreement seriously blurs the line between amateur and professional actor.

The New Media $300k/$500k exemption is also dangerous because actors on those sets are afforded no union protection, which in practice will mean very short turnaround times and associated fatigue-related crew mishaps.

On this third point alone, AFTRA has failed to do the most basic of union functions - making sure work that should be covered by the union actually is covered by the union.

There may be other problems with the AFTRA deal, but on these three points alone, every AFTRA member should be gravely concerned, both for the safety of their fellow actors and the long-term viability of their union.

Given that roughly 44,000 SAG members also hold AFTRA cards, it is a reasonable and prudent step for SAG to inform its members of the pitfalls of the AFTRA deal and make recommendations in the best interest of its members.

You'd have to have lived in a dark box without sound, or picture, or any kind of contact for your entire life to believe an employers' union is anything but thrilled when a rougue union (which is what AFTRA is, at least within the context of it's attack on SAG jurisdiction in prime-time) spends it's membership's money on attack and divide tactics against a sister union (SAG)that has more power and can do a far superior job of negotiating with the employers on any single point, especially prime-time. AFTRA weakens SAG, yet provides no improvement whatsoever of any kind in prime-time relative to the SAG contracts already in place. All that AFTRA does is make producers richer, and SAG actors in Hollywood poorer. The New York contingent of AFTRA that benefits from weakening SAG to microscopically advance AFTRA's bargaining power have to be delighted that thus far the truth about the lowering of average annual incomes for on-camera Hollywood SAG talent as a result of AFTRA's presence in prime-time has been obscured and largely overlooked by the Hollywood actors who have the ability to stop it. In this case New Yorkers thinking we're dumb is only because we have been. But the truth is out now, and no matter how the majority of AFTRA members vot on their prime-time contract ratification, in Hollywood we'll end up taking care of this at the studios, by voting with our feet.
JD Beck

It is unfortunate that AFTRA decided to sell itself short when it counts the most. I don't think it makes there organization look anymore appealing. I think it was a desperate move on there part, and do not look forward to the fallout from this awkward contingency.

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