Analysis: SAG's in a Tough Spot


NEW YORK With its final offer just hours before the screen actors contract expired Monday night, the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers 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 primetime TV contract between producers and AFTRA; 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 Writers Guild of America strike.

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

The AMPTP 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, about 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. "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 actress who is said to have instigated a possible change in jurisdiction, has declared that she and a cast-mate acted on their own. AFTRA has said the fracas was the last straw in a long antagonistic campaign against the federation.)

Still, SAG leaders and its 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, it wanted to marginalize the New York and regional branches, and it wanted a credible threat of a work stoppage.

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