TV performers ratify Hollywood labor deal

LOS ANGELES Wed Jul 9, 2008 12:53am EDT

Tourists pause on a walkway at a shopping mall which offers a view of the famed Hollywood sign at the hills in California March 14, 2008. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Tourists pause on a walkway at a shopping mall which offers a view of the famed Hollywood sign at the hills in California March 14, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Fred Prouser

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The smaller of Hollywood's two performers unions ratified a new prime-time TV contract on Tuesday, undermining a last-ditch bid by the larger, more militant Screen Actors Guild to secure a richer deal.

The labor pact with major studios covering 70,000 members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists won final approval despite an unusual all-out campaign by SAG urging some 40,000 actors who belong to both unions to vote down the AFTRA accord.

"A majority of members ultimately focused on what mattered -- the obvious merits of a labor agreement that contains substantial gains for every category of performer in both traditional and new media," AFTRA President Roberta Reardon said in a statement.

More than 62 percent of AFTRA members casting ballots voted in favor of the new contract, the union said. The number of ballots returned and actual vote totals were not disclosed.

While AFTRA's margin of victory was substantially less than the 90 percent range most Hollywood labor pacts attain for ratification, it was not immediately clear how much if any real additional clout SAG would gain in pressing its demands.

SAG leaders had said a "no" vote on AFTRA would give them leverage to negotiate a more favorable settlement with studios for all actors under the larger deal covering 120,000 SAG members in both prime-time television and movies.

AFTRA countered that it secured the best terms possible without a strike, including higher basic wages and new reuse fees, or "residuals," for online content, and that defeat of its deal would lead to renewed Hollywood labor unrest.

SAG's contract talks stalemated last week over some of the same issues that led to a 14-week screenwriters strike months ago, such as disagreements over how union talent should be paid for work created for the Internet.

SAG also has pressed for higher residuals from DVD sales, a demand both the writers and AFTRA were forced to abandon.

A number of A-list stars joined the public relations blitz waged between the two actor unions, with Tom Hanks, Kevin Spacey and Sally Field siding with AFTRA while Jack Nicholson, Sean Penn and Viggo Mortensen lined up behind SAG.

AFTRA PREVAILS ON SLIMMER MARGIN

Reardon attributed the slimmer-than-usual margin of passage to confusion in AFTRA's ranks caused by SAG.

"We were faced with an unprecedented situation of another union ... mounting well-funded and ferocious attack on our contract ratification process," she said on a conference call.

Terms of the new AFTRA pact are essentially the same as those in the "final offer" the studios presented to SAG last Monday when talks broke off hours before their existing contract expired.

Basic provisions of the old deal remain in effect for now. But if the union rejects the studios' latest offer -- a package they say is worth more than $250 million in additional compensation -- management could impose its own terms.

SAG, which plans to deliver its formal response to the studios on Thursday, issued a statement from its president, Alan Rosenberg, calling AFTRA's new contract "inadequate" and vowing to "continue to address the issues of importance to actors that AFTRA left on the table."

So far, SAG leaders have played down the likelihood of a strike, a move that would take weeks to organize and require a 75 percent vote by rank-and-file members.

Many industry watchers doubt SAG could muster the support necessary for a work stoppage in light of lingering fatigue from the writers strike. Another possibility, widely seemed as fairly remote, would be for the studios to impose a lockout.

In the meantime, much of the entertainment industry already has slipped into a "de facto strike" mode, as major studios have halted most of their film production in advance to avoid the possibility of costly labor disruptions.

The studios have said they are done negotiating with SAG and issued a statement urging union leaders to "allow SAG members to vote on (the) final offer."

Appealing directly to the executives overseeing Hollywood's major studios, SAG placed a full-page ad in Wednesday editions of an Idaho newspaper aimed at entertainment industry leaders attending a media conference at Sun Valley, Idaho. "Let's Keep Talking ... Let's Make a Fair Deal," the ad says.

The AFTRA deal, which governs actors' employment on about a dozen prime-time TV shows, takes effect immediately.

The two actors unions had negotiated their main TV contracts together for nearly three decades, but AFTRA decided to go it alone earlier this year after long-simmering tensions with SAG reached a boiling point.

AFTRA executives on Tuesday called for a summit of top actors and union leaders to discuss ways to bolster labor unity and ultimately, if possible, to merge the performers' unions.

But Reardon also suggested that current SAG leaders who led the vote-no campaign against AFTRA be "held accountable" in upcoming SAG elections "for this ridiculous waste of members' union dues money ... in attacking another union's contract."

Reuters/Nielsen