In Depth

SAG’s Bruises May Outlast Contract

Actors Union Split as Deal Comes Into View

The Screen Actors Guild may have come closer to putting its labor-contract woes behind it, but the union’s yearlong dispute with television and movie studios has left lasting scars.

The labor dispute with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers initially centered on how actors would be compensated for new media, then morphed into a fight over whether the union would get to negotiate future contracts in sync with the other Hollywood guilds.

The talks with the AMPTP exposed fissures in the actors union between hardliners such as SAG President Alan Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen and members who wanted to get back to work without a strike.

With Mr. Allen since deposed and Mr. Rosenberg marginalized, the divisions at SAG may still play out as the proposed deal is considered by the membership.

“The hardliners on the board in the guild have pledged to oppose almost any deal achievable, and their issue is still new media,” said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment attorney at Troy Gould and a blogger on digital media law. “There’s no deal until the ink is dry, and this has to go first to the national board and then to the members for ratification. There will be a fight.”

The damage to SAG extends beyond internal political fissures. This pilot season saw a number of projects switch to working under the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists agreement—something Mr. Handel says SAG may not easily recover from in the future.

“SAG has already dropped the ball on that,” Mr. Handel said.

The guild’s national board was scheduled to meet Sunday via teleconference.

Mr. Handel predicted that hardliners with the Membership First faction of SAG will voice opposition to the contract. Even if the board agrees to send the contract to members for a vote, the ballot materials will go out with a minority report if 25% of the board opposes the deal. It could take up to two weeks to draft such a report. After that, members would get a three-week voting period, putting a ratification decision as early as late May.

The deal must be approved by 50% of voting members.

The tentative deal contemplates a two-year contract, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
SAG has been at odds with the AMPTP since last year, when producers began talks with SAG and AFTRA. The talent unions’ contracts with AMPTP expired June 30. SAG-AFTRA joint negotiations fell apart, and AFTRA agreed to a new contract in July.

Since then, SAG and AMPTP have been engaged in sporadic meetings with no progress. In the fall, federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez was brought in to help the process, but those talks crumbled.

Tensions within SAG escalated over the winter. Even after the union set a potential strike authorization vote in January, concerns about the bitter division delayed that schedule.

That set off a chain of events that led to Mr. Allen, SAG’s national executive director, being fired by a board majority of moderates, who cited their dissatisfaction with the way the contract negotiations were going.

By late January, SAG officially suspended any strike authorization vote as the pro-strike movement lost ground and the struggling economy continued to frighten union members.

Mr. Rosenberg filed claims that threatened to delay talks under the new leadership, claiming SAG did not follow proper protocol when it fired Mr. Allen. After it was decided the earlier written assent to fire Mr. Allen did not meet the requirements to make it official, he was fired again in February by a board majority, effectively derailing any suits that could delay talks.

Later in February, SAG rejected the “last, best and final offer” from AMPTP, this time citing a discrepancy in start and end dates for the contract.

While producers sought to have the new contract begin when it was ratified, actors want it to take effect from the previous one’s expiration in June, which would keep the three-year contract on a similar schedule with other major unions in town.

Hollywood, which had been holding its collective breath as talks proceeded under the radar, let out a sigh of relief at the news on Friday.

“As a producer and a member of SAG, I’m especially gratified that both sides found a way to extend the olive branch at this troubled economic time,” said Karen Bailey, VP of production at Starz Media. “I’m glad we were able to find that common ground. It’s good for everyone.”