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Screen Actors Guild to seek strike authorization vote

November 22, 2008 |  9:55 am

The Screen Actors Guild said early this morning that it would seek a strike authorization vote from members after last-ditch efforts by a federal mediator to end a months-long stalemate in contract negotiations with the major studios sputtered.

"Management continues to insist on terms we cannot possibly accept on behalf of our members," the union said in a statement. "We remain committed to avoiding a strike but now more than ever we cannot allow our employers to experiment with our careers."

SAG, which represents 120,000 actors, said it would now begin a "full-scale education campaign" in support of a strike referendum, in which members would be asked to authorize a strike should their negotiators fail to reach a deal with the studios.

SAG members have been without a contact since June 30 and are sharply at odds with the studios over how actors are to be paid for work distributed over the Internet.

The guild's announcement came shortly after the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the major Hollywood studios, disclosed that the "parties were unable to reach an agreement" and that the mediator had "adjourned the process" after two days of meetings.

The outcome was not unexpected. Few pinned much hope that federal mediator Juan Carlos Gonzalez would be able to bridge the enormous gap between the parties. Gonzalez also was unable to mediate a contract dispute last year between writers and the studios.

What's more, the union's 71-member national board previously gave the guild's negotiating committee authority to seek a strike vote in the event that mediation efforts failed. Ultimately, the board will have final say on whether to call an actual walkout, which would shut down most major film and TV production. It's unclear whether newly elected moderates on the national board would seek to block such a drastic action.

Actors previously struck in 2000 in a six-month walkout over a commercials contract. If SAG strikes this time, it probably wouldn't be until early next year. A strike referendum takes several weeks and would probably not occur until after the guild conducts an aggressive campaign to muster support. SAG leaders are expected to time any walkout to disrupt the upcoming Academy Awards and Golden Globe award shows early next year and studio plans to ramp up production on movies set for release in 2010.

It is not uncommon for unions to seek such votes as a way to gain leverage in contract negotiations on the theory that employers would be more inclined to take their demands seriously when confronted with the threat of walkout.

But securing such a vote in the current climate could be difficult for SAG. The referendum would require 75% approval from members who vote in order to pass. Although union members typically grant strike authorizations to leaders in negotiations, that could be a difficult threshold to meet given the deteriorating economy and strike fatigue after a 100-day walkout earlier this year by the Writers Guild of America.

During meetings Thursday and Friday, Gonzalez expressed frustration that neither side appeared to back down from its positions. Among the chief sticking points is SAG's insistence that it should have jurisdiction over all shows created for the Internet, regardless of budget. The studios said that would limit their ability to experiment in new media and instead proposed limiting contracts only to shows above certain budgets levels or when professional actors are hired. They argued that SAG should accept the same new-media pay framework already negotiated by five other unions, including the smaller sister union the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the WGA.

The studios have repeatedly touted how actors were losing out on contract gains negotiated by the other unions. But that argument came under fire this week when the WGA accused the studios of reneging on some of the key terms of its contract negotiated in February -- a point that was seized on by SAG in its statement.

The AMPTP had no immediate response.

-- Richard Verrier

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