March 31, 2008 / 6:40 AM / 11 years ago

Actors unions butt heads over negotiations

LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The bad blood between Hollywood’s two major actors’ unions reached Hatfield and McCoy levels during the weekend just as they prepare to negotiate new labor contracts for their members.

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

Saturday’s stunning decision by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) to negotiate its own deal with the studios rather than in partnership with the bigger and more-confrontational Screen Actors Guild (SAG) raises the question of which union will sit down first for formal talks.

The unions’ TV-theatrical contract, which they have jointly negotiated for 27 years, expires on June 30. The studios, slowly recovering from the 100-day writers’ strike, are fearful of another walkout and are delaying work on projects that could be interrupted in the summer.

The union that does not negotiate a new contract first with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (AMPTP) could find itself facing a bigger battle, depending on whether its proposals are greatly different than what was agreed upon by the other union.

AFTRA, whose contract covers 44,000 members of both unions, has been pushing for early talks all along, so it would come as no surprise if it were first to the table.

Both unions said Sunday that they would be getting in touch with the AMPTP within the next few days.

“Informal discussions are happening and we expect to set a timeline soon,” AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said.

SAG executive director and chief negotiator Doug Allen said the union plans to call the AMPTP Monday.

“We’ve discussed it informally with them,” Allen said. “This is what we were waiting for to get started on bargaining: To get this process finished and for the input of the members who were all participating.”

The AMPTP issued a statement Saturday saying it was pleased that AFTRA is ready to start formal talks and is determined to “work hard and bargain reasonably” to avoid another harmful strike in the industry. The statement made no mention of SAG. (Hollywood writers walked out for 100 days last year.)

Both unions, however, probably will wait until after the April 7 start of talks between AMPTP and the Intl. Assn. of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which represents blue-collar studio workers.

AFTRA’s eleventh-hour decision to suspend its joint bargaining agreement with SAG, known as Phase One, came as both actors unions were set to vote on a proposal package their members had been working on since February. Terms of the package have not been disclosed.

Just last Tuesday and Wednesday, members of both unions’ “wages and working conditions” committees met to put finishing touches on the package. Word out of those meetings was that both worked amicably side by side.

But even that characterization had Allen and Reardon disagreeing. SAG’s Allen described the meetings as “energetic” and “exciting.” AFTRA’s Reardon said there had been “tensions” and “disagreements.”

The straw that broke the camel’s back Saturday, Reardon said, was the anticipated decision by the cast of the daytime soap opera “The Bold and the Beautiful” to circulate a petition seeking to annul AFTRA’s representation of the show’s actors.

Several weeks ago, members of the cast approached SAG about issues they had regarding AFTRA’s representation.

“They’re fed up that AFTRA has not taken care of their needs and concerns and that AFTRA has not assisted them in getting money owed to them,” said SAG national board member Anne-Marie Johnson, also an AFTRA member. “They’re fed up with their health and retirement package, and they know SAG will assist if they could.”

Johnson said the actors were told to bring it up with AFTRA because SAG taking jurisdiction over the “Bold” actors would be considered “raiding.”

Allen said the guild assured AFTRA it would not assist the soap opera’s cast in their efforts to organize with SAG.

“The timing of this was transparently obvious,” Allen said. “It was incredibly cynical and calculated. It was a flimsy excuse. SAG was never intent on raiding or representing the soap opera.”

But Reardon said for AFTRA it was clear SAG planned a raid. She cautioned that the decision to stop jointly bargaining was not just because of “Bold.”

“We had learned about ‘The Bold and the Beautiful’ situation but found out quite later in the game that the situation was much more dire than we first knew,” Reardon explained.

Over the last year, there have been “growing attacks from the guild” that pushed AFTRA to its boiling point, including “letters in the screen actors magazine, petitions, elected leaders of SAG on the sets of our cable shows.”

“It’s been a very planned campaign to discredit AFTRA and the decertification petition is the outcome of that,” she said. “You cannot engage in bargaining with employers when you’re sitting at a table with a partner you don’t trust. We would spend more time negotiating with each other than the industry.”

Despite the contentious history, Allen denied Reardon’s allegations of a SAG campaign against AFTRA and said it tried to work with its sister union.

“How is it better for the acting members of the unions to negotiate separately?” Allen asked. “How is the leverage of the average working actor increased by negotiating separately as opposed to together?”

But not every SAG member believes the union’s leadership was that blindsided by AFTRA’s decision or will mourn the loss of the union as a bargaining partner.

“It was only recently that the Hollywood leadership of SAG was actively working to end our relationship with AFTRA over the strenuous objections of those of us who knew what the outcome would be for both unions,” said Sam Freed a New York member who is SAG’s second national vp. “Now, after a year of provocation that has gotten them what they always wanted, they are placing the blame on everyone but themselves for the outcome. The current Hollywood leadership of SAG has today failed all actors.”

Reuters/Hollywood Reporter

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