SAG Might Twist AFTRA’s Arm

LOS ANGELES The Screen Actors Guild will hold a special session of its executive committee Friday, at which president Alan Rosenberg and national executive director Doug Allen will seek to persuade dual cardholders to oppose ratification of the prime-time TV deal recently agreed to by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the studios and networks.

SAG and AFTRA formerly bargained together on major contracts until March, when a bitter feud resulted in the suspension of their joint agreement, known as Phase One.

AFTRA’s national board is expected to approve the contract at meetings Friday and Saturday. If it does, the deal will be sent to the federation’s roughly 70,000 members for their approval. A simple majority is required for passage.

About 44,000 of SAG’s 120,000 members also are members of AFTRA, so ratification could be blocked. That’s unlikely, however, given the general support for the pact.

Asked about the guild’s executive committee meeting, SAG rep Pamela Greenwalt said, “We have scheduled a special session Friday to update the committee on the status of negotiations.” The committee includes Rosenberg, secretary-treasurer Connie Stevens, the three vice presidents and members of the national board from Hollywood, New York and the regional branches.

AFTRA and Hollywood producers reached their tentative agreement May 28 on a new three-year contract covering work in scripted programming on network prime time. Although SAG covers most of the work in that area, AFTRA has jurisdiction over a handful of shows, including Cashmere Mafia, Flight of the Conchords and Rules of Engagement.

SAG officials have limited their public comments to say only that they have been studying the AFTRA deal and had been briefed on the particulars by AFTRA officials. First word of potential opposition came after Rosenberg and Allen met privately with top executives of Sony Pictures on Monday and told them SAG would try to derail the AFTRA deal.

On Wednesday, a Sony rep would only say that “there was a frank and cordial exchange of views, and we said how important it was to the industry that a deal be reached as soon as possible, and the best way to do that is by negotiating with the [studios] so everyone’s energies should be focused that direction.”

SAG officials met with the AMPTP on Wednesday, the 23rd day of the negotiations. The contract expires June 30.

Given SAG’s official silence, it’s unclear exactly what the guild finds objectionable about AFTRA’s deal. The federation was able to increase salary minimums by an average of 3.3 percent per year. For major roles, the annual increases average 4.3 percent during the life of the contract, and guest stars working three days will receive an 11 percent increase in 2009.

A Los Angeles-based actor who requested anonymity stated that the wage hikes aren’t high enough and are part of a much larger problem facing middle-class members, those who earn $28,000-100,000 a year. As an example, he said he earned $600 for a day’s work in 1988. His most recent job for the same day’s work was $750.

“Our lack of pursuing adequate minimums has caught up to us,” he said.

A SAG source close to the negotiating who requested anonymity said that Rosenberg, Allen and the Membership First group have no specific objections to the AFTRA deal — they only want to defeat the deal to cover themselves politically with their own membership.

“They’ve boxed themselves into a corner at every turn,” the source said. “They’ve got nowhere to go.”

There have been some questions raised about the legality of SAG working to defeat AFTRA’s contract. Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney at the Los Angeles firm TroyGould who has represented the Hollywood writers guild, said AFTRA and the studios would have little legal recourse to object because SAG has a First Amendment right to speak to its own members about a contract that affects them.

However, the SAG source responded: “There’s a difference between freedom of speech and using union resources to undermine another union’s operation. It’s one [legal battle] I’d be pretty interested to see it play out.”