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SAG board turns down studio offer

February 21, 2009 |  8:06 pm

The board of the Screen Actors Guild, as expected, rejected the "final offer" by the Hollywood studios for a new contract covering the union's 120,000 members, creating fresh uncertainty about whether and when the seven-month labor dispute will end.

The rejection was widely anticipated because the studios' proposal contained a provision that SAG negotiators viewed as a non-starter.  Nonetheless, the move is likely to deepen anxiety in the movie industry, where production activity has already slowed.

The studios and SAG appeared close to striking a deal earlier this week after the union's negotiators made what they said were key concessions, including accepting a framework for how actors will be paid for their work in content distributed on the Internet. That framework is modeled upon terms agreed to by three other Hollywood talent guilds.

But SAG negotiators balked at the studios' demand that the union's contract expire in three years, rather than two years. Studio executives insist that a three-year contract is necessary to ensure stability. A three-year deal, however, would mean SAG's contract would expire a year later than the labor contracts of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and the writers and directors guilds.  SAG leaders believe that would weaken their bargaining clout by preventing them from joining forces with the other unions in the next round of contract negotiations.

In a statement, SAG accused the studios of inserting a "last-minute and surprise demand" that was not brought up in earlier negotiations, including during federal mediation talks in November.

"By attempting to extend our contract expiration one year beyond the other entertainment unions, the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) intends to de-leverage our bargaining position from this point forward. ... The AMPTP has clearly stated their need and desire for financial certainty and industry peace.  This new proposal does the exact opposite, and will only result in constant negotiating cycles and continued labor unrest."

The AMPTP responded that its offer was “strong and fair” and that it had always sought a three year deal with SAG. "We have kept our offer on the table -- and even enhanced it -- despite the historically unprecedented economic crisis that has clobbered our nation and our industry." 

SAG's board stopped short of asking union members to approve a strike, fearing that the deep recession makes this the wrong time for such action. People close to the union, who did not want to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the record, say the next logical step for SAG representatives is to initiate back-channel contacts with some senior studio executives to see if a showdown can be averted (typically, negotiations are conducted through the studios' negotiating arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers).

Meanwhile, SAG is preparing to begin negotiations Monday with producers of commercials, which are covered under a separate contract.

-- Richard Verrier

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