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June 2, 2009

Blog Stage: Acting in Film, TV, Theatre: In AD talks, There’s a Whisper of Strike, but Don’t Worry Yet (Mar. 17, 2009)


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In Ad Talks, There’s a Whisper of Strike, but Don’t Worry. Yet.

UPDATE: Correcting the composition of SAG’s half of the negotiating committee and adding a statement from SAG-AFTRA.

For actors, there’s bad news, good news, and bad news: The bad news is their unions are planning to ask them for a strike authorization to give them leverage in ongoing talks with the advertising industry; the good news is that the potential conflict figures to be nothing like the freeway pile-up that has characterized attempts by the Screen Actors Guild to get a new TV-and-film contract from the networks and studios; the bad news is, when the performers’ unions are involved, you can’t figure on anything.


A source close to negotiations told reporters that a strike-authorization ballot could go out to all members of SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which are bargaining jointly across the table from the advertisers. The source contends that advertisers are asking for rollbacks, including: the elimination of the traditional payment structure for Class A (i.e., national commercials on the five major broadcast networks); caps on contributions to the unions’ pension-and-health plans; stretching the workday from eight hours to 10, which would reduce overtime pay.

A spokesperson for the advertisers was not immediately available to comment.

Later in the day, SAG and AFTRA issued a statement that played down the strike authorization:

“We are making every effort to negotiate a fair contract and remain optimistic that we will bring these talks to a successful conclusion. Today, there was an unauthorized distribution of a draft strike authorization letter. This is one of many contingency documents that we prepare in the course of any negotiations, particularly as we approach the expiration of a contract. Our members understand that this is a normal part of the bargaining process.We will continue to bargain in good faith with the industry in an effort to get a deal.”

Before actors storm the ramparts or worry that they will be out of work more than usual, there are two things to consider, according to a longtime union insider experienced in negotiating. 1) If the strike authorization ballot is sent out, it will be coming not from one wing of one union, but from two unions. “The negotiating committee is made up of 13 AFTRA members and 13 SAG members, [seven] of whom come from SAG-Hollywood,” said the source, who requested anonymity. “It’s a much, much better balanced negotiating committee than” the SAG TV-and-film negotiating committee, which had been dominated by Membership First, the Hollywood-based faction known for its hard-line posture toward management. The committee was replaced by a task force when the national board fired national executive director Doug Allen and replaced him with David White and John T. McGuire.

2) The Joint Policy Committee, which negotiates on behalf of advertisers and advertising agencies, does not usually begin bargaining seriously until the unions have strike authority in hand. In effect, the JPC wants the unions to get strike authority before getting down to brass tacks. “Most of the time, the two sides will negotiate for a few weeks, everybody makes a presentation, they break off for a week or so, and then they [the unions] send out the strike authorization,” the source said.

Other union and management sources contacted during the past few weeks have pleaded ignorance when asked if seeking strike authority is a standard part of the commercial-negotiating choreography. Nevertheless, that the source told Back Stage that this would happen before talks began may lend credence to the theory.

The unions require 75 percent of voting members to approve strike authorization before negotiators could stage a walkout. This could be one reason why SAG’s national board, which is controlled by a slight majority of self-described moderates, has not yet sent out a strike referendum to assist them with the TV/film negotiations. Two concurrent strike referenda, particularly in the current economy, might have been too risky a political move. If one or both of them failed, it would have been disastrous for union negotiators, leaving them with no leverage in trying to negotiate performers’ two most lucrative contracts.

Carefully choreographed or not, the potential move for strike authority still carries a risk, given that actors in SAG, which has more than 120,000 members, are working on no fewer than six expired contracts, including ones for broadcast TV-and-film and basic cable. The commercials contract expires in two weeks.

“This is unprecedented,” said the source of SAG’s situation. “It’s craziness.”

–Andrew Salomon

CORRECTION: A previous posting misstated the number of negotiators from SAG Hollywood. There are seven, not nine. We regret the error.

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