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Producers to SAG: Take the Deal or Take a Hike

Strikewatch_blog In issuing a final contract offer hours before the expiration date last night, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers has issued a dare to the Screen Actors Guild: Take the deal or go take your strike vote.

The move is backed by two seemingly safe bets: 1) The guild will fail to defeat the ratification of the proposed prime-time TV contract between producers and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists; 2) It does not have the will or the votes to get strike authorization from its rank-and-file, because they--and the rest of Hollywood--took a financial hit during the 100-day strike by the Writers Guild of America.

Then again, in an unprecedented year for entertainment labor, anything can happen.

The AMPTP's move "is definitely not standard," said a longtime industry insider who has worked for labor and management. "I do believe that the producers are confident that SAG cannot get a strike authorization."

As for defeating the proposed AFTRA deal, SAG faces an equally difficult task. The federation has about 70,000 members, roughly 44,000 of which are dual cardholders. About 26,000, though, are non-SAG members, and it seems unlikely that those with no loyalty to the guild would be inclined to reject a deal that their board of directors has overwhelmingly approved. To defeat the contract, SAG probably needs to persuade 80 percent of the joint members, a steep arithmetic challenge, to say the least.

"Doug Allen comes from football, and this [anti-AFTRA] strategy is a Hail Mary pass," said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney based in Los Angeles. "SAG has backed itself into a corner."
That is largely, but not exclusively, true. AFTRA is the one that suspended Phase One, the two unions' joint operating agreement, in part over allegations that the guild tried to poach its turf for the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful.

(Susan Flannery, the actor who is said to have instigated a possible change in jurisdiction, has publicly declared that she and a castmate acted on their own. For its part, AFTRA has said the TB&TB fracas was the final straw in a long antagonistic campaign against them.)

Still, SAG leaders and the ruling Membership First party seem to have willingly engaged in a three-front war--against AFTRA, its own New York and regional branches, and the producers--and, as a consequence, seems to have little leverage left except to strike.  In undertaking this strategy, they appear to have become the victim of the proverb, "When the gods want to punish us, they grant us our wishes." The guild majority wanted to get AFTRA out of the negotiating room (check), it wanted to marginalize the New York and regional branches (check), and it wanted a credible threat of a work stoppage (check).

What SAG leaders and Membership First really wanted, however, was leverage, and they do not seem to have much at this point. In fact, they may not even get to strike, because the producers may lock them out.

There is some confusion about what the AMPTP has given the guild: Is it what is known in labor negotiating as a "last, best, and final" offer, or is it simply a "final" offer? Sources close to the producers told Strike Watch it was "last, best, and final," while two independent union sources say it was simply a "final" offer. An actor and one of the strategists during the 2000 commercials strike stated, "It is not at all uncommon for either side to make several 'last, best, and final' offers along the way."

The distinction is important. If it was merely a final offer, it gives the two sides some wiggle room. If, however, it is a "last, best, and final" and SAG rejects it, the producers legally can declare an impasse and do one of two things: 1) Impose the terms unilaterally, which Broadway producers did with the stagehands last November, galvanizing an already solid union and precipitating a 19-day strike; 2) Lock out the actors, a move that one source stated was a distinct possibility, though perhaps not for a few more weeks.

"I'd say they will lock [the guild] out within a week or two from impasse," emailed the source, who has a long history with Hollywood labor negotiations on the union side. "Impasse will occur the moment SAG rejects the AMPTP's LB&F offer."

The final question is this: Will the producers' audacious move galvanize a horribly fractured guild? (Among other things, SAG leaders have denied New York board president Sam Freed access to the email list of actors in his own region, keeping him from campaigning for the AFTRA deal, which would contravene official SAG policy.)

The first source, who has sat on each side of the negotiating process, stated that was unlikely, and contrasted yesterday's move with the commercials strike of 2000:

"Under normal circumstances, they would be running precisely the risk that you've identified, but I believe that Membership First has managed to drive such a deep wedge this time, there is no way that this offer can bring the factions back together. Remember, in 2000, there were deep divisions, but the [advertisers] had rollbacks on the table. It's a whole different ballgame when it's only a question of how many gains are enough. In this climate, actors won't authorize a purely offensive strike and the AMPTP knows it."

--Andrew Salomon

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Given the moguls' reported lack of engagement in the process, it seems they're just going to sit on their hands for a few more weeks and see what SAG does. The issue of what the AMPTP called their most recent offer is largely irrelevant. They can declare an impasse in either case if they want. They also gave the WGA close to a dozen last, best, final, F-U offers before they finally reached one that would end the strike.

The best thing SAG leadership can do is wait patiently for the other side to actually want to negotiate. One person in the room describes the negotiations like this:

"The actors I know show up day after day for no money to take on lawyers who get paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to say NO to us. (In fact they can’t say yes. That’s not in their purview—their job description. Only the studio moguls have that power.) In my view we sit across the table from the most ineffectual, frustrated bunch of star f*#kers on earth. If they could they’d be asking for autographs. They smirk and they sneer and they try to dismiss us yet we come back day after day with nothing in our minds but doing whatever it takes to secure a livable contract for actors."

Knowing this is what the other side of the table is like, the best thing SAG members- whatever their factional affiliation or (in my own case) lack thereof - can do is offer their full support to elected national SAG leadership and our paid staff. The clearer our resolve, the sooner the moguls will dismiss the sniveling star-f*#kers and actually cut a deal.

The best thing dual cardholders can do is send AFTRA leadership back to the table with a clear mandate to do a better job by voting NO on the proposed Schedule A contract.

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