SAG contract talks collapse; Offer rejected


First there was hope – the scheduled two days of talks between the new negotiating committee from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) stretched into a third day last week. But then the talks collapsed. AMPTP said the studios made six new concessions in what is now being called "AMPTP’s last, best and final offer." But AMPTP also added a new provision which infuriated SAG officials and SAG’s National Board voted overwhelmingly to reject the studios’ offer. Meanwhile, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), which does have a contract with AMPTP, is getting the lion’s share of new television work.

The new sticking point is AMPTP’s insistence on a three-year contract. That would prevent SAG from being able to threaten a joint strike with other Hollywood unions who signed three-year contracts with AMPTP in 2008. That appears to be primarily aimed at preventing SAG from coordinating with the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which staged the last strike against the studios with devastating consequences. There is an exception, though. AMPTP’s offer states that if SAG and AFTRA bargain jointly on a new successor agreement and ratify it by June 30, 2011, then the 2009 SAG agreement would expire on that date and the new agreement would go into effect. Note, though, that the exception only applies if a new contract is agreed on and ratified by that fixed date.

That new provision in the offer from the studios did serve to unite the warring factions within SAG. The union sent this statement to RBR/TVBR Saturday evening:

“The Screen Actors Guild National Board of Directors today voted 73% to 27% to ‘reject the AMPTPs last, best and final offer dated February 19, 2009.’

We entered this round of negotiations sending an unmistakably clear message that we were ready to make a deal. In an effort to put the town back to work, our negotiator agreed to modify the Guild’s bargaining position to bring the Guild in line with the deals made by our sister unions.

The AMPTPs last-minute, surprise demand for a new term of agreement extending to 2012 is regressive and damaging and clearly signals the employers’ unwillingness to agree to the deal they established with other entertainment unions. The demand for a new term of agreement was not part of their final offer of June 30, 2008; it was not part of the federally mediated talks of November 2008, and should not have been inserted into the discussions when we returned to negotiations on February 17, 2009.

What management presented as a compromise is, in fact, an attempt to separate Screen Actors Guild from other industry unions.  By attempting to extend our contract expiration one year beyond the other entertainment unions, the AMPTP intends to deleverage our bargaining position from this point forward.”

Most of the new concessions in the “last, best and final offer” from AMPTP are rather technical in nature. The one of significance among the six is that “The Producers agreed to modify the Union Security clause for new media productions.” That modification was primarily AMPTP’s agreement to strike most of the language it had previously insisted on giving it’s members broad options to use non-union personnel on new media productions.

On the economic side, the latest proposal still has the same terms that AMPTP offered in June:

— Increase minimums by 3.5% in 1st and 3rd year, 3% in the 2nd year

— Increase Pension & Health rate from 14.5% to 15%, matching the highest rate among the Hollywood Guilds

— Increase guest star premium from 7.5% to 10%

— Increase number of covered background actors in TV from 19 to 20 and in Film from 50 to 52 (and to 55 under the enhanced terms)

— Increase trailer money break from $2,500 or more per week to $3,000 or more per week

— Increase the overtime money break for three-day performers from $2,700 per day to $3,000 per day

— Increase the guaranteed weekly salary figure for Schedule B performers in features from $5,500 or less per week to $6,000 or less per week, and in television from $4,400 or less per week to $4,650 or less per week

Attorney Jonathan Handel, in his Digital Media Law blog, notes correctly that the AMPTP had given the union a take it or leave it offer. “SAG probably has insufficient internal support for a strike, the offer is a bitter pill, and the Guild is in disarray, riven by internal political disputes and losing out dramatically this pilot season to its smaller rival, AFTRA. Add to that, the commercials contract negotiations start next week, and with SAG in a weakened state, the results aren’t likely to be great there either.”

He suggested that SAG could send the AMPTP offer out to its membership for a vote. Presumably that would be with a recommendation for a no vote, now that the board has turned thumbs down on the offer. Having members of the divided union vote would help restore SAG unity.

Don’t put all of the blame on the union, either. “The hard-liners at the studios may have made a big mistake here. There were some simple enhancements they could have added to the deal that would have allowed SAG’s new leadership to save face and argue in the boardroom that the offer should go out with a yes recommendation,” Handel said on Friday.

RBR/TVBR observation: SAG still appears to have limited options. The union has been so weakened by internal strife in recent months that it probably lacks the member support to call a strike. Unless AMPTP backs down on the sticking point over contract length, SAG members could keep working without a contract indefinitely.