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Studio concession to SAG comes with a hitch: Less back pay

April 7, 2009 |  6:33 pm

For weeks, the major studios insisted they would never agree to a demand by Hollywood's biggest actors union to have its next contract expire at the same time as those of other talent guilds. 

Now, after back-channel talks between Screen Actors Guild leaders and top entertainment executives, the studios have conceded just that, lifting a stumbling block that broke off negotiations over a new contract in February.

Turns out, however, that the studios' offer comes with a big hitch that may not sit well with hundreds of actors who lost their jobs during the 100-day writers strike. In return for a two-year rather than a three-year contract term, the actors union would agree to settle so-called force majeure claims it filed last year seeking more than $10 million in pay.

After the writers strike ended in February 2008, SAG lodged claims against more than 80 shows on behalf of "series regulars" -- which encompass stars as well as those with a recurring role in a show -- who lost their jobs and wages during the writers walkout. The strike shut down popular series such as "Lost," "CSI" and "Ugly Betty."

SAG maintained that producers violated a force majeure clause in the union's contract that entitled actors to receive roughly 2-1/2 weeks' pay if they were suspended as a result of an "act of God," such as foul weather. The studios, however, balked at paying the claims and accused SAG of overreaching.

Studios want to impose a stricter interpretation of the force majeure clause and have offered to settle the outstanding claims for less than what the actors contend they are owed. How much less is unknown, however.

SAG interim Executive Director David White and Chief Negotiator John McGuire have indicated that they would accept the studios' demand as a necessary concession to preserve the larger goal of aligning the expiration of the actors contract with those of other guilds. They are especially keen to have SAG's contract expire at the same time as that of the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, to gain maximum leverage at the bargaining table.

Expect fireworks from dissidents. The force majeure issue will almost certainly be seized on by White's opponents in the actors guild, who've vowed to campaign to defeat a contract they view as an inferior deal. The actors have been working without a contract for nine months. 

Nonetheless, the new SAG leaders, who were installed after the board fired former Chief Negotiator Doug Allen, retain the support of the board majority. And in the end, most members, weary of working without a contract and anxious about the deepening recession, are expected to support whatever contract their board recommends.

-- Richard Verrier