The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Red hot strike talk

July 9, 2008 |  5:32 pm

Sagphoto_5 I confess. Like all too many other people in Hollywood, after surviving the Writers Guild's months-long work stoppage, I have a bad case of strike fatigue. When talk turns to the Screen Actors Guild leadership, the protracted negotiations with the studios, or the possibility of strike, my eyes glaze over. This is important stuff, of course, but it has been one long strike season. Luckily, The Times' dynamic duo of Richard Verrier and Claudia Eller have been doing yeoman's work in the past months covering the various permutations of Hollywood's labor strife.

The big news this morning was that members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, an increasingly independent-minded rival union, approved a new three-year prime time TV contract. As Verrier and Eller's front-page story pointed out, the 62.4% approval vote dealt a big blow to SAG, which had spent considerable money and time trying to defeat it. So where does this leave SAG? Is union President Alan Rosenberg, the most militant of all Hollywood labor leaders, up the creek without a paddle? Is there any silver lining for his union? Or will SAG be forced to take a few fig leaves from the studios and surrender without a strike?

Verrier graciously carved out a little time to answer a few of our questions and help frame the big issues that could shape the union's reaction over the next few weeks:

Q: Many people in the industry are interpreting the AFTRA 62.4% ratification vote as a pretty clear defeat for SAG, which spent a lot of time and money trying to persuade AFTRA members to vote down the contract. How do you view what happened? Is SAG a big loser?

Verrier: Clearly, it was a setback for SAG given that the union’s leaders had staked so much on defeating an agreement they viewed as deeply flawed and undermining their own bargaining goals. SAG can draw some comfort from the fact that its campaign succeeded in producing a much lower vote of support than normal, but it’s not clear that result will convince studios to give SAG a better deal.

Q: There's been so much name-calling between AFTRA and SAG over the last few months. What is at the root of the bad blood between the two unions?

Verrier: The unions have been fighting a turf war in cable TV. AFTRA has made huge gains in signing up shows in cable, while SAG has steadily lost share in recent years. SAG accuses the smaller union of poaching its turf by agreeing to lowball contracts. AFTRA says it simply has a better understanding of the cable business and has expanded the number of union jobs. Now the battle is spreading to prime-time TV, where AFTRA is poised to pick up a number of new series as more shows are shot digitally. The danger for SAG is that AFTRA could be the big winner in all of this, eventually emerging as the main television union.

Q: SAG seems a lot more divided than the WGA and is getting a lot less industry support than the WGA at this stage of the negotiations. What's the main reason for that?

Verrier: Before the writers strike, guild leaders worked very hard to unify the union by holding a series of outreach meetings with key groups, including high-level screenwriters and moderate showrunners whose support proved vital to the strike’s effectiveness. While there were disagreements over strategy, guild members mostly kept their dissent private. SAG leaders, on the other hand, never managed to build bridges between Hollywood and New York and, in fact, took actions that served to further divide an already fractious union. The timing is unfortunate for SAG. The three-month writers strike exhausted much of the goodwill that SAG might otherwise have enjoyed.

Q: The biggest question in the industry right now is whether the studios will offer SAG a few face-saving compromises or just wait them out, figuring they don't have enough rank-and-file support to pull off a strike. You've been following this closely for months--what you do you think will happen?

Verrier: My guess is that studios will have to offer some limited improvements to SAG, but the sweeteners will probably not address their biggest demands. SAG will try to keep talks alive to prevent studios from declaring an impasse. The studios will likely hold off taking any drastic action such as lockout until early next month, and will press SAG to put its offer to the members for a vote.

Photo by Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times: SAG National President Alan Rosenberg (far right) salutes a crowd of about 100 rallying SAG members.