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SAG moderates seek to oust negotiating committee

December 30, 2008 |  9:13 pm

Adding to the drama that has engulfed contract talks between actors and Hollywood studios, moderates on the Screen Actors Guild board are expected to push for the ouster of the union’s negotiators.

The move, which is designed to break the six-month-long deadlock, could undermine the guild’s current leadership, which some fear is bringing Hollywood to the brink of another strike.

SAG has been shaken internally by rival membership groups that take opposing views on what course of action the 120,000-member union -– the largest in Hollywood -– should take in efforts to reach a new contract with the studios. But despite those sharp differences, the strategy has largely been set by the union’s hard-line leadership, which includes guild President Alan Rosenberg and Executive Director Doug Allen, the chief negotiator.

Now a coalition of the union’s board members, frustrated at the stalemate with the studios that has left SAG in limbo, is expected to call for disbanding the union’s negotiating committee at an upcoming meeting.

It also plans to vote against holding a strike referendum, and instead replace the current negotiating team with a “task force” appointed by the board, people close to the situation said. The people asked not to be identified because they were not authorized to discuss the plans.

The negotiating committee is dominated by the Membership First faction that has backed Rosenberg and Allen, whose future as the union’s chief negotiator also could be on the table at the Jan. 12 meeting, the people said.

The new negotiating team would be constituted to reflect the results of an election last fall, when a group of moderate actors known as Unite for Strength won key seats on the board, forming a slight majority with supporters in New York and elsewhere.

If approved, the new negotiators would seek to jump-start talks with the studios, probably by consenting to new media pay terms negotiated by other unions in exchange for improvements in traditional media pay areas.

Such a move, however, would be a major blow to SAG leaders, who’ve argued that a strike authorization from members is needed to give them leverage with studios in what they view as landmark negotiations that could determine how actors are paid in the digital era.

But the proposed referendum has faced mounting opposition within the union, including from New York board members who this month called on the union to scrap the vote, arguing that it was ill-timed in light of the sour economy. The recommendation won a significant boost from more than 130 high profile actors, including Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Sally Field. Other actors, including Martin Sheen, Ed Asner and Mel Gibson, are openly supporting the authorization, splintering Hollywood’s largest union.

“Obviously, the board has to consider withdrawing the strike authorization given what’s happening, and we may need to shake things up to get what we need,” said Ned Vaughn, spokesman for the Unite for Strength group who serves as an alternate member of the national board.

Added Paul Christie, a board member and former president of SAG’s New York division, “We feel this is a negotiating committee that has... gotten us nowhere.”

Actors have been without a contract since June 30. The question is how willing studios will be to sweeten the current offer on the table, which studios have repeatedly insisted is their final one, even though it contains some provisions that are widely unpopular, such as a proposal to eliminate mandatory mealtimes.

Negotiating committee member Anne-Marie Johnson said it would be “undemocratic” to prohibit members from voting on a strike authorization because the studios’ final offer was unacceptable.

Johnson vigorously defended Allen, whom critics accuse of mishandling the negotiations as well as alienating the smaller sister actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. “To want to fire your lead negotiator whose only fault is that he’s trying to get the best possible contract he can get, baffles the mind,” Johnson said.

Allen could not be reached for comment.

Allen said in an e-mail to members last week that he and Rosenberg postponed plans for the strike referendum, which was scheduled to begin Friday, to “address the unfortunate division and restore consensus.” However, he said, the vote would proceed immediately after the Jan. 12 meeting.

Rosenberg was not available for comment. In a recent holiday message to members, he called on them to put aside their differences. “We must stay true to our solidarity votes in the boardroom and true to our responsibility to better the lives of all SAG members and their families. Make no mistake, a house divided is doomed to fall.”

-- Richard Verrier