SAG to AFTRA: Let’s Talk Commercials

LOS ANGELES Embroiled in stalled negotiations with producers on a new TV and film deal, the Screen Actors Guild is seeking an extension of its soon-to-expire commercials contract and to jointly negotiate a new version with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the sister union it has battled for more than a year.

SAG national executive director Doug Allen made the request in a letter to Mathis Dunn, AFTRA’s chief commercials contract negotiator, on July 9, a day after the guild failed to defeat ratification of AFTRA’s new primetime television pact. Two weeks later, AFTRA staffers asked their counterparts at SAG to take the proposal to the guild’s national board; AFTRA is still waiting for a response.

SAG’s board members approved the proposal in their meeting Saturday. If the unions get approval from the Joint Policy Committee, which negotiates for advertisers and ad agencies, the contract will be extended for six months. Without an extension, the deal would expire Oct. 29. Approval from the JPC is likely.

A representative for the JPC could not be reached for comment, while a SAG official wrote in an e-mail: “This is a subject of discussion between the JPC, AFTRA and SAG. Beyond that we have no comment.”

The existing commercials contract was extended once in 2006, for two years, allowing the unions and JPC to hire an independent consultant to study advertising in new media. SAG and AFTRA need another extension because of their bruising battles with each other and arduous negotiations with studio and network producers. So much time has been spent on trying to ratify a deal (in AFTRA’s case) or trying to secure a tentative deal (in SAG’s case), that they have not had adequate time to prepare for the commercial negotiations.

Preparations include holding meetings with the rank and file to evaluate their priorities and concerns. Negotiators also need to assess the ad study, conducted by Booz Allen Hamilton. The last time the commercials contract was fully renegotiated was in 2003; since then, online advertising has nearly tripled, from $7.27 billion to $21.2 billion in 2007, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau. Meantime, TV and radio advertising have seen little or no growth.

Perhaps most importantly, the unions would have more leverage negotiating jointly, and the JPC does not want to negotiate a new contract twice.

Until this spring, SAG and AFTRA almost always jointly negotiated major contracts under an agreement known as Phase One, because there are about 44,000 actors who belong to both unions. Allen, SAG national president Alan Rosenberg and Membership First, the party that has a controlling interest on the National Board, have objected to the terms of Phase One, which calls for 50-50 representation on the negotiating committees, even though SAG has greater jurisdiction in prime-time TV and commercials. (AFTRA has no jurisdiction in film, and SAG has no jurisdiction in radio.) AFTRA and the guild’s New York and regional members have insisted that original voting rules be maintained, and they would be for this round of negotiating.

A long-simmering feud between the labor groups — centering on Phase One voting and jurisdiction in basic cable — boiled over in late March, amid allegations that SAG tried to usurp jurisdiction for the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful, a charge SAG has denied. AFTRA officials said the jurisdictional spat was “the last straw” in a negative and public campaign to undermine the union’s credibility with actors.

As a result, AFTRA suspended the Phase One agreement and negotiated a new broadcast, prime-time TV contract on its own for the first time in nearly three decades. Before the contract was ratified by AFTRA members, however, SAG waged a month-long campaign to defeat the deal by heavily lobbying joint cardholders through a rally, advertisements in trade publications, mass e-mails, online video testimonials and pre-recorded phone messages from high-profile members.

The contract passed with slightly more than 62 percent of the vote; however, contracts of this nature often receive more than 80 percent approval.

Sources from the SAG and AFTRA boards weren’t clear what impact a return to Phase One would have on national board elections in the fall. Membership First has long wanted to sever ties with AFTRA, while the newly organized opposition party, Unite for Strength, wants the unions to merge. About one-third of the national board seats are up for grabs. If Unite for Strength wins five or more seats on the Hollywood division board, it could tilt the balance of power to the pro-merger forces.

In the meantime, SAG is reaching out to its fellow unions. Rosenberg and Allen met with Writers Guild of America president Patric Verrone Tuesday at Campanile restaurant. Another meeting is scheduled, probably this week, with Teamsters Local 399, which represents casting directors, drivers and location managers.