The Screen Actors Guild is besieged by bad news, and thanks to the misguided strategies of the previously-dominant hard-line faction, the union may be slipping towards irrelevance.
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The Screen Actors Guild is besieged by bad news, and thanks to the misguided strategies of the previously-dominant hard-line faction, the union may be slipping towards irrelevance.

Start with the latest: Talks between SAG and the AMPTP (studio alliance) collapsed Thursday night, with the AMPTP presenting SAG with a take it or leave it offer and a 60-day deadline, after which the offer could be modified or withdrawn. (AMPTP statement below; SAG has not yet issued a statement.)

The new Last, Best and Final Offer (highlights here) deletes or modifies several rollbacks contained in the previous AMPTP offer, which had been on the table since June 30, 2008--approximately eight months ago--when the 2005-2008 union agreement expired. Other than the removal or modification of rollbacks (which I had anticipated, see secs. 3(d), (e) & (f) of this post), the new offer contained no significant improvements over the previous offer (SAGWatch has a nice summary). Both the previous and new offer contain improvements over the 2005-2008 agreement, such as approximately 3.5% increases per year in union TV and theatrical minimums.

However, perhaps the most bitter news for SAG is that the studios are insisting on a three year contract, as I predicted might be the case (see sec. 3(g) of this post). The resulting 2012 expiration date means that SAG would not be able to threaten a joint strike in 2011 with the WGA (let alone AFTRA) when those unions' contracts expire. (The studio proposal would allow SAG to synchronize its expiration with AFTRA's 2011 date, but only if the two unions jointly negotiate and ratify a deal at that time without a strike.)

Also in the news is a stunning report from the Hollywood Reporter that this year's pilot season will be more than two-thirds AFTRA. Specifically, says the story, at least 50 of the 70-plus primetime pilots will be AFTRA, a complete reversal from the SAG-dominated pilot seasons that have prevailed for many years. The article quotes studio sources who say the reason for the change is primarily the turmoil and uncertainty surrounding SAG, and the possibility that existed until recently that the Guild might strike.

SAG, and all actors, are also threatened by the continuing rise of non-scripted primetime programming such as reality, game shows, and even Jay Leno's talk show, but even here, advantage AFTRA: the hosts and celebrity judges of such shows are generally covered by AFTRA contracts.

Add another critical piece of data--the fact that SAG has a total of seven contracts that have expired (or, in one case, is about to)--and you have a picture of a Guild whose strength, effectiveness and relevance may be in decline.

The blame for this situation rests largely on the shoulders of Membership First, the previously dominant hard-line faction headed by SAG President Alan Rosenberg, 1 VP Anne-Marie Johnson, board member Kent McCord, and former board alternate David Jolliffe. MF held out for the best deal imaginable, in the process ignoring the fact that negotiation is about obtaining the best deal achievable.

The studios wanted to negotiate a year ago, in March 2008, but the MF-led Guild declined, instead delaying talks, and ultimately engaging in a protracted battle against AFTRA. As MF fiddled, the calendar burned, and with each passing month after the 2005-2008 contract expired, it became less and less likely that SAG would be able to maintain the 2011 expiration date that would have been synchronized with the Guild's traditional ally, the Writers Guild.

Meanwhile, SAG's (i.e., MF's) anti-AFTRA antics helped persuade that union to set out on its own and negotiate a deal with the AMPTP. No longer in SAG's shadow, AFTRA now offers an alternative (in television) to the troubled Guild, and studios have taken to the alternative. MF has devoted so much time to internecine warfare that it now leaves the Guild with the above-mentioned seven expired or nearly-expired contracts. SAG still has a monopoly in feature films, but even that could one day disappear if AFTRA were to assert jurisdiction over features shot digitally rather than on film. AFTRA has said it has no intention to do so, but who knows what might happen if SAG remains mired in turmoil.

SAG's under new management now, even as Rosenberg and his allies apparently continue to press their lawsuit against their own union. That sort of sideshow is exactly the opposite of the "unity" that MF invokes when convenient. Of course, the union is anything but unified. The new offer might not be ratifiable, if the board even decides to send it to the members for a vote--both of those things remain to be seen. But, in any case, it seems unlikely that SAG will strike, since that requires a 75% affirmative vote of those voting, whereas ratifying, or defeating, a proposed deal takes only a simple majority. How the moderate majority and new staff leaders are going to clean up this mess is anybody's guess.


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Statement by the AMPTP

The AMPTP has offered SAG a Last, Best and Final Offer that contains important enhancements to the Final Offer - a Final Offer that already represented a $250 million increase over SAG's now-expired contract. The AMPTP made these enhancements in an effort to conclude the AMPTP's sixth major labor agreement in the past year. The terms in the offer are the best we can or will offer in light of the five other major industry labor deals negotiated over the past year and the extraordinary economic crisis gripping the world economy.

The Producers have pledged to leave the Last, Best and Final Offer on the table for 60 days, at which point we reserve the right to modify or withdraw the terms of the offer. We urge SAG members to review the offer for themselves at and consider not only the enhancements but the significant gains in wages, benefits, new media residuals and jurisdiction.

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