Actors Union Weighs Strike


Prominent actors are choosing sides in the debate over the upcoming strike-authorization vote by the Screen Actors Guild, with stars Mel Gibson, Martin Sheen, Ed Harris and Ed Asner among those advocating a work stoppage and George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Matt Damon and former SAG president Melissa Gilbert among its opponents.

SAG strike-authorization votes will be mailed out beginning Jan. 2. Votes will be counted on Jan. 23, which ironically will be the date for the Screen Actors Guild Awards. Seventy-five percent of those voting would have to approve strike authorization for the measure to pass.

The fight over the vote is taking place in print, with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers taking out ads in trade publications touting the terms of the contract deal that were accepted by guilds for writers and directors and the other actors' union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

SAG is battling back with town hall meetings with members and via online videos in which Hollywood division board members point out the perceived deficiencies in the contract offer by major producers.

SAG president Alan Rosenberg, in one of those videos, notes that the union “cut slack” to the studios as home video was taking off and these days actors are still held to an “antiquated” compensation formula for the retail sale of movies. For that reason, the union does not want to sign a contract with little compensation for new media.

Doug Allen, the union's chief negotiator, said half of an actor's income comes from residuals, adding, “we must be a valued part of the transition” to a market where reruns live primarily on the Internet.

The latest dust-up between the two sides was over indications the studios could bypass the main actors' union and produce spring TV pilots with actors represented under AFTRA's contract with producers.

SAG is concerned that Twentieth Century Fox Television or other producers will shift current shows from SAG to AFTRA representation as a strike vote looms by SAG members.

SAG said any effort to shift existing programs from one union shop to another would violate federal law and AFL-CIO rules. “The Screen Actors Guild will take any and all necessary and appropriate action to insure the right of its members to be represented by the Guild,” the union said.

AFTRA replied that it would never participate in switching the union affiliation of shows. The AMPTP called SAG's statement “overheated,” adding its rhetoric is an effort to disguise the fact that, in a bad economy, the actors are sticking with a “failed negotiating strategy that has already cost SAG members nearly $40 million” in benefits that would have been provided under a new contract. A strike would cost millions more, according to producers.

Town Hall meetings with members have revealed a schism between SAG's Hollywood Division, which represents about 60% of the guild's approximately 120,000 members; and divisions in New York and elsewhere, according to Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer with TroyGould in Los Angeles.

Members at a Manhattan meeting opposed a strike authorization vote. Earlier this year, the New York board asked the Los Angeles faction to rescind the strike-authorization request. Rosenberg called the New York division traitors.

Rosenberg also tried to demand a face-to-face meeting with all 71 SAG board members on Dec. 19. When notified he could not demand an in-person meeting, under SAG rules, he cancelled the meeting, Handel said.

Los Angeles town halls have been more civil, even laudatory, of the hard-line Hollywood division stance, Handel said.

To Handel, the strike comes down to original made-for-new-media productions. Compensation for “move over media,” shows produced for TV then rerun on the Internet; and derivative programming, such as mobisodes made for portable devices but based on a broadcast show, are not contested by SAG, he said. But Handel said studios can easily bypass any union terms for new media originals by forming separate, non-union divisions to produce them.

“The issue, ultimately, is kind of silly,” he said. The key issues are not about big stars, he added, as such actors individually negotiate their own deals. The real acrimony is prompted over the disparity in pay between the A-listers and the rest of the guild.

He estimated three-quarters of the union make $5,000 or less a year as actors, so issues like residuals are vital to their survival.

Asked who might blink first, should there be a strike, Handel said, “This is going to end badly, no matter who blinks, or when.” SAG is a dysfunctional family that's done great damage to itself, he said. If the union continues its hardline stance, it could bolster the membership of AFTRA, whose members could cross picket lines and continue working in a strike. Also, the studios have already been hurt, as theatrical production has all but ceased since SAG rejected a contract in June.