Saturday, April 18, 2009

SAG & Studios Agree to Tentative Deal

The Screen Actors Guild and the AMPTP (alliance representing studios and producers) reached tentative agreement yesterday on a two-year TV/theatrical contract, potentially ending a ten-month stalemate that halted production of most studio movies and put thousands of people out of work.

The deal will probably be approved by the SAG board today or tomorrow and ratified by the membership by mid-May, but the hardline MembershipFirst faction has vowed to fight the deal, so ratification, although likely, is not assured. Assuming the deal is in fact ratified (which takes a 50% majority), the stalemate would be over by mid-May. Some production might resume before then, in anticipation of ratification, but this is unknown.

In separate news today, the SAG and AFTRA boards meeting jointly approved the commercials contract reached April 1 with the advertising industry. Ratification ballots will go out to the members of both unions next week, with a return date in mid-May. The deal has wide support among the leadership and is expected to pass easily.

Back to the tentative TV/theatrical deal: Critically, this deal would expire on June 30, 2011, effectively synchronizing it with the Writers Guild, Directors Guild and AFTRA (smaller actors union) deals. That means all four unions will be able to coordinate negotiations and strategy, even to the point of threatening a joint strike by two (WGA and SAG) or three (WGA, SAG and AFTRA) of the unions. (The DGA has essentially never gone on strike, and AFTRA seldom does.)

This synchronicity should give the unions significant leverage, which raises the question of why the studios agreed to it. Probably they needed to restart theatrical film production soon in order to have movies for 2010. That would seem to be the only pressure point SAG had, since the union was widely understood to be unable to strike (a strike authorization would have taken a 75% affirmative vote of those voting, and the union didn’t even seek such a vote for fear of failing).

The gain—synchronicity—came at a price to SAG, however. The new deal compromises the force majeure claims SAG has pending from the 2007-2008 WGA strike. These are claims by actors for lost wages due to the strike, and amount to tens of millions of dollars. It’s unknown as yet how much will be foregone. Also, since the claims were the subject of a pending arbitration process, it’s unknowable how much SAG would have gotten if it had continued to pursue the claims. Thus, it’s hard to calculate the dollar cost of the compromise. The new deal also modifies the force majeure language in the union contract, but the details are unknown.

The deal includes no changes in new media from the AMPTP’s February offer, according to sources. That offer, in turn, is essentially the same as the new media provisions that the DGA, WGA, and AFTRA (in two separate deals) agreed to. (IATSE’s new media provisions are similar in several respects as well.) No change was expected by anyone, yet, ironically, new media was the reason the hardliners stalemated for ten months in a futile attempt to improve on the template accepted in the other five union deals.

The deal will take effect upon ratification, and includes an immediate 3.0% increase in minimum pay rates plus a 0.5% increase in pension and health contributions. A year later, there will be an additional 3.5% increase in minimums, which will run through contract expiration.

In contrast, AFTRA members have been enjoying a 3.5% increase for the last ten months (when AFTRA did its deal), and will receive their 3.0% + 0.5% bump on June 30 of this year. That means that for virtually the entire contract period, AFTRA rates will be about 3.5% higher than SAG’s. In other words, the new deal does not give SAG a double increase in order to catch up with AFTRA.

If SAG wants to ever catch up, they’ll have to seek a double increase in 2011, but that will involve giving up some other issue that SAG would otherwise have negotiated for, and in any case a double increase in 2011 would not be retroactive to the 2009-2011 period. This is part of the damage that the hardliners inflicted on the union.

Speaking of retroactivity, that’s an element that, not surprisingly, this deal doesn’t include either. That means that SAG actors who worked in TV over the last ten months will not receive makeup payments to bring them up to higher minimum pay levels that they would have received if the deal had been done promptly. This also is a result of the delay that MembershipFirst caused by not making a deal almost a year ago. And, of course, the whole issue of expiration date was caused by the hardliners’ delaying tactics.

The deal next goes to the SAG national board tomorrow for approval and then to the members for ratification over a several week period. SAG hardliners will fight the deal—SAG president Alan Rosenberg, 1st VP Anne-Marie Johnson, and former Hollywood board member David Jolliffe are among those who have already spoken in opposition—but I expect it to pass, although not with the over-90% margin the Writer Guild deal did a year ago. The deal will almost certainly go out to the members with a minority statement in opposition. Nonetheless, people are sick of not working and will probably agree that the deal was the best obtainable in a bad economy and with SAG weakened in large part by the hardliners themselves.

One thing that’s clear is that this is a time of enormous change for the Hollywood actors unions. Most immediately, actors have a lot to vote on over the next several months: the commercials contract, the TV/theatrical contract, the AFTRA Board elections, and then the SAG presidential and Board elections, the latter of which are expected to run from July through September.

In addition, several of the Hollywood unions’ pension and/or health plans have made cutbacks (AFTRA, AFM, and IATSE), due to the stock market collapse and to the continued increases in health care costs. Also, SAGWatch reports today that SAG itself is in difficult financial straits, due to MembershipFirst’s mismanagement: loss of union dues due to the production slowdown over the last 10 months, departure of television work to AFTRA due in large part to SAG’s internal strife, the expenses of futile battles with AFTRA and internally, and, most significantly, alleged bloated hiring practices that added 100 staff members to the union payroll. Layoffs are apparently expected, and the LA Times is reporting today that the union has a deficit exceeding $6 million.

SAG’s new leaders have difficult work to do on various other contracts that expired or were ignored on MembershipFirst’s watch, including the franchise agreement between SAG and the town’s talent agents, which expired seven years ago. Then there’s the perennial question of SAG-AFTRA merger, which will probably be a factor in the upcoming SAG elections, as will vituperative arguments about the new TV/theatrical deal and the responsibility for the large-scale decline in SAG’s power and prestige.

Change isn’t limited to the labor side. The AMPTP’s longtime head, Nick Counter, retired several weeks ago. Also, interestingly, the new TV/theatrical deal was negotiated primarily on an informal basis by key SAG leaders and studio heads, not by formal bargaining between the union and the AMPTP. Although AMPTP acting head Carol Lombardini played a part late in the discussions, this process raises questions as to the future role and effectiveness of that organization.

Hanging over all of this are the twin factors of the economy and new media. The troubled economy will continue to harm the entertainment industry for some time to come. New media will continue to evolve, and will probably roil the unions, and the industry as a whole, for a decade or more.

And, of course, with mid-2011 expiration dates set for the WGA, DGA, AFTRA (two deals) and new SAG deals, negotiations will start again in the towards the end of next year. No rest for the weary, or sleep for the sinful, it seems.

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