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Labor Unrest, Coast to Coast

UPDATED, 9 a.m. Eastern time (adding Equity comments)

An unsettled labor situation stretched from California to New York this weekend as the three principal actors unions continued working to negotiate or ratify the most lucrative contracts in the business for theatre, film, and television.
The more critical of the two situations, of course, involves Hollywood, where SAG and AFTRA continue to wage fierce internecine battles that have defined an unprecedented period of worker strife in the entertainment industry. However, uncertainty may be revived on Broadway, where Actors' Equity Association and the Broadway League have yet to finalize a deal covering work on the Main Stem and national tours. The contract was set to expire at 12:01 a.m. Monday morning, but both sides have agreed "to extend the contract on day-to-day" while they continue to negotiate, according to Equity spokeswoman Maria Somma.
"The talks remain productive and both parties are confident a fair and equitable contract will be reached," Somma said. "No specifics on the outstanding issues are available at this time."
Last November, Broadway was shuttered for 19 days during a stagehands strike. Nevertheless, the situation is not nearly as dire this time.
In Hollywood, the atmosphere remains intensely combative. A letter signed by an actor working under an AFTRA basic-cable deal implored joint cardholders to vote against the federation's broadcast prime-time TV pact, citing alleged problems he and his cast members have had with the union. Meantime, the New York division of the Screen Actors Guild made a charge of its own: that Sam Freed, president of the Gotham board and the guild's 2nd national vice president, was denied access to members' email addresses and was prevented from circulating a letter that, essentially, urges a yes vote. According to two outside labor law experts, withholding the contact information contravened the guild's past practices, and one said it might have violated federal labor law.
Additionally, SAG's TV and film agreement will expire at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, no apparent deal is in sight, and the AMPTP will have ads in tomorrow's trade papers imploring the guild to make a deal. For their part, SAG leaders have maintained that it was producers who have been stalling, not them.
Despite the highly charged environment, a third strike remains for now a remote possibility. For SAG to walk, it would need 75 percent of its members to approve, and SAG officials have not yet asked for a strike vote to be held. If they do, they would need about three weeks to complete the process, and it is far from certain they would get the required percentage. There is, however, a work slowdown, as studios have been reluctant to approve films for production while the contract situation remains unresolved. It is adding tension to a business that already lost billions of dollars during the WGA strike.
On the SAG-AFTRA front, Bruce Thomas, an actor for the ABC Family channel series Kyle XY, posted a letter on SagWatchdog.com Friday that alleges the following about AFTRA officials: "We never agreed to the terms that AFTRA negotiated after we had signed our deals; in fact, we didn't even know the show would be covered by AFTRA. ... We suffered long workdays without overtime pay, forced calls without compensation for having very little turnaround time to get to work the next day, and worked through scheduled lunch breaks with no penalties whatsoever."
Later in the letter, Thomas writes, "For a long time last year we got no satisfaction from AFTRA. They failed to respond to our phone calls or emails, and even to the phone calls and emails of our attorneys."
However, in emails obtained by Strike Watch, AFTRA denied most of the claims. A high-ranking official wrote: "The original Kyle XY contract was negotiated prior to the performer's signing their original deals."
Later, the official wrote: "We subsequently met with the cast members (and some of their agents) to update them on the outstanding grievances.... As I recall, anyone who did not get a copy of the original contract ... was sent a copy shortly thereafter by e-mail. The members' concerns as outlined in [a] meeting were raised with the company, and the priorities as defined by the members were in fact ultimately agreed to by the employer."
Attempts to contact Thomas were unsuccessful.
Internecine labor battles are not, of course, confined to SAG-AFTRA. The guild is also facing an intramural war. Freed, New York board president, tried to get access to the emails of rank-and-file members who live in the New York region to counteract an intense "Vote No" campaign by SAG-Hollywood, an effort that has included pre-recorded phone messages (or "robo-calls") from well-known actors. According to an email obtained by Strike Watch, "it has become policy at the guild to disallow the use of guild resources to express any position that does not strictly adhere to current guild policy."
In the email Freed attempted to send, he stated, "The New York Board is on the record objecting to this official interference in the internal processes of another union. That unfortunately is what these recorded messages represent."
Guild spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt stated Freed wasn't allowed to send the email because he was not authorized to speak. "As reaffirmed by Screen Actors Guild’s Board of Directors at its March 29, 2008 meeting, SAG National President Alan Rosenberg and National Executive Director Doug Allen and their specific designees are the only official Guild spokespersons regarding the Guild’s negotiations," Greenwalt wrote in an email.
According to Stephen Diamond, an associate professor at Santa Clara University School of Law, the withholding of union resources from a minority party is a violation of the Landrum Griffin Act of 1959, which established for union members a "bill of rights" that guarantees freedom of speech and other protections. Subsequent cases heard by the Supreme Court and the U.S. Court of Appeals have affirmed those rights, including members' right access to mailing lists to express views that oppose the majority.
"The law is straightforward: Union officials bear a heavy burden to justify why they would restrain members to communicate opinions about matters on which they are to vote," Diamond said.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the guild's general counsel and deputy national executive director, responded through a SAG spokesperson:
“Some ... individuals allege that the Landrum-Griffin Act requires Screen Actors Guild to permit Guild officers to use Guild resources, including our email systems, to send messages in opposition to the Guild’s officially- and democratically-approved position on the AFTRA contract ratification vote. To the contrary, it is well-established law that the Landrum Griffin Act protects members in their exercise of their free speech rights, and does not apply to officers when they seek to use union resources they may have access to in that capacity to counteract the union’s own initiatives [emphasis Crabtree-Ireland's]."
Diamond, a former candidate for the position of SAG national executive director, replied in an email: "Freed is both an officer and a member. Here he is trying to exercise his right as a member.  Federal courts have held that members 'whose views are opposed to [the union's]...[should] have an opportunity to present their views to other members of the union.'  In other words, SAG is not allowed to discriminate against Freed simply because he is also an officer."
The case Diamond cites is Cotter v. Helmer, argued in front of the U.S. Court for New York's Southern District.
A lawyer and a former SAG official who requested anonymity partially disputed Diamond's interpretation and partially affirmed it: "Only the organization has the authority to set policy. However, the position being adopted by the current majority [Membership First] is nothing short of astounding. When their members were in the minority, they often requested the list to present an opposing view to whatever the majority had decided: merger, a contract referendum, or the agency agreement."

--Andrew Salomon

CORRECTIONS: Stephen Diamond is an associate professor of law, not an assistant professor; the Cotter v. Helmer decision was argued in U.S. District Court, not U.S. Court of Appeals; and Sam Freed, president of New York's board, only sought access to the emails, he did not try to acquire them. Strike Watch regrets the errors.

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