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SAG Plays Politics With Peace

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Hollywood soon might find itself looking forward to September, and it has nothing to do with football season.

With SAG's TV/theatrical contract negotiations stuck in neutral, there is growing concern that the guild's leadership is preparing to coast until its next election cycle, which would keep the industry in a state of permanent uncertainty throughout the summer. Or, worse, fears are surfacing that a resolution could be years away.

Since neither of the major opposing factions within the guild seems to be able to push through its agenda, each now could be focusing longer term on national board elections in September (the month is not yet official but likely). Each side of the internal debate would hope to pick up a few seats and gain enough additional leverage to implement its aims with regard to the stalemate with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

Moderate forces that include reps from the New York and regional boards have made up a slight majority of the national board's 71 seats since they picked up a few key spots in last year's election. The Hollywood-based MembershipFirst advocates a strike-authorization vote, while Unite for Strength and its allies have denounced that action as unworkable in the current economic climate.

But the previous contract already has been expired for more than eight months, since June 30, so are guild leaders willing to drag this out another six months at the expense of the gains written into the current offer from the AMPTP?

Given that 75 percent of the national board rejected that offer out of hand on Feb. 21, the answer is: Why not? The AMPTP had delivered its "last, best and final offer" on Feb. 18, and while SAG's negotiating task force theoretically had agreed to the contract's new-media terms, the expiration date of the new deal became an intractable roadblock. The AMPTP wants a date of June 30, 2012, while SAG wants it to expire one year earlier so it ends in sync with other major union deals with the WGA, DGA and AFTRA.

The moderate forces on the board also rejected a motion by MembershipFirst to send out a strike-authorization vote to punctuate their displeasure with the deal. The studios and networks, meanwhile, aren't overly put out by the stalling because it means that they're paying less to SAG than they would if the offer -- roundly slammed by all SAG partisans -- had been accepted.

A running tally on the AMPTP Web site puts the wage increases lost by working under the expired contract at $59 million.

Even as A-list actors Tom Hanks and George Clooney foster back-channel talks between SAG national executive director David White and chief negotiator John McGuire and various studio execs, it's questionable whether a compromise on the expiration date issue, if one could be reached, would be enough currency to buy the ratification votes from the SAG membership necessary to accept the offer.

If the self-described moderates' position is that it is in the guild's best interests to accept an unacceptable deal now and live to fight those battles again during the next round, then allowing the expiration date to separate them from their potential collective bargaining power would vastly minimize the effectiveness of that argument. On the other hand, they fear that sending out the current offer could lead to ratification of a deal with all its unfavorable terms and a split-off end date.

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