January 10, 2009 / 12:52 AM / 10 years ago

Divided Hollywood actors union nears boiling point

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Moderate board members of Hollywood’s deeply splintered Screen Actors Guild are expected to try next week to oust a contract negotiating team they see as too militant and cancel a strike authorization vote in stalled contract talks with major studios.

Although union support for a strike referendum appears to have eroded as the economic recession has worsened, the outcome of a pivotal two-day SAG board meeting that starts on Monday in Los Angeles is far from certain.

SAG’s 120,000 members have been without a film and prime-time TV contract since their old labor pact expired on June 30, hours after studios presented union negotiators what management called its final offer.

That deal essentially mirrors the terms accepted by several other Hollywood labor groups, including a smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

But SAG and the studios remain at odds over points that center on how actors should be paid for work distributed over the Internet.

Insiders and labor experts see SAG leaders as unlikely to go ahead with a vote asking formal permission from rank-and-file members to call a strike if necessary.

Proceeding with a strike authorization but failing to muster the required 75 percent majority of those voting would cripple SAG’s remaining bargaining clout.

“It doesn’t appear that they can count on getting that kind of vote back if they were to send out the strike authorization. And if you can’t get that back, it’s a very risky move,” said Mike Asensio, an Ohio-based lawyer who specializes in labor disputes and has followed the SAG talks.

One SAG board source, speaking on condition of anonymity, called the likelihood of conducting a strike referendum at this point “extraordinarily small.”

Also in doubt is the whether SAG’s chief negotiator and executive director, Doug Allen, will keep his job.

Many among the union’s more moderate faction accuse Allen and SAG President Alan Rosenberg of mishandling labor talks with major studios that have deadlocked for months.

STRIKE, SETTLE OR BARGAIN

Allen and Rosenberg have argued that winning a strike authorization would give them leverage to clinch a better deal for SAG. Otherwise, they argue, the union has no choice but to settle for the proposal already on the table.

But union moderates who gained a slim majority on SAG’s 71-seat national board in September elections are pressing for a third way. They want to replace Allen and the rest of the negotiating committee with a new team and reopen contract talks by agreeing to give up the union’s more contentious demands.

One possible alternative would be to put the latest contract offer from the studios up for a vote, a move SAG’s more hard-line leaders have long resisted.

But if members were to reject the studios’ “final” offer, SAG leaders would gain clout to insist on better terms.

The leadership “has a better chance of defeating the deal than getting a strike authorization,” said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer with ties to both labor and management.

He added that the presence of Allen and other hard-liners makes it hard to close a deal because “these guys have lashed themselves to terms the studios will never accept.”

The outcome of next week’s meeting hinges on moderates from Hollywood, New York and other cities reaching consensus on the best way forward.

SAG leaders already announced last month they would delay the planned strike authorization ballot mailing for at least three weeks, pending next week’s meeting.

Stars like Tom Hanks and George Clooney have lent their names to a campaign against the referendum.

Leaders of SAG’s New York branch called on the union’s national governing board to cancel the strike referendum and urged replacement of the negotiating committee.

Anti-strike sentiment has been heightened by fatigue from a 14-week Hollywood writers strike that ended in February and cost the Los Angeles area economy about $3 billion as production ground to a halt on most prime-time TV shows.

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