August 19, 2008 / 1:21 AM / 9 years ago

Tensions mount inside actors union over contract

4 Min Read

<p>The Hollywood sign is seen on a hazy afternoon in Los Angeles, California in this November 4, 2007 file photo.Danny Moloshok</p>

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Tensions within the Screen Actors Guild mounted on Monday as the union's Hollywood-based leaders rejected a call by SAG's New York branch to bring in a federal mediator to break a deadlock in contract talks with major studios.

Members of the New York regional board also publicly challenged the assertions of SAG president Alan Rosenberg and chief negotiator Doug Allen that the union is holding informal talks with studio representatives in a bid to close a deal.

And they accused SAG negotiators, in a resolution passed unanimously last week by the 23-member New York board, of "failing to bargain realistically ... and remove unattainable items from the table."

"There's no discernible plan here," New York division board member Paul Christie told Reuters. "You can't have a plan that just says, 'We're holding secret meetings.' And our question is just what the hell does that mean?"

Rosenberg condemned the resolution as "political" in nature and "an attempt to damage SAG's negotiations."

The sharply worded exchanges on Sunday and Monday further heightened a growing internal split over the seven-week-old contract stalemate.

"SAG really is a union divided," said entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel, a former co-counsel for the Writers Guild of America with ties to both Hollywood labor and management.

A moderate faction within SAG's Hollywood branch recently launched a campaign to wrest control of the powerful union from the Rosenberg-led Membership First coalition in national board elections set for September 18.

The insurgent Hollywood bloc, Unite For Strength, has joined the New York division in blaming Rosenberg and his group for the current deadlock with industry executives.

'No Clear Movement'

Both accuse his coalition of straining relations with SAG's smaller sister union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, through SAG's failed campaign to scuttle a contract negotiated separately between AFTRA and the studios.

The contract now at issue covers the work of 120,000 SAG members in prime-time TV and movies, an industry still recovering from a 14-week writers strike that ended in February.

In its resolution, the New York board demanded SAG seek the help of a federal mediator to reach a settlement if "there is no clear and obvious movement forward in the negotiating process by August 25."

But Allen said the intervention of a mediator could slow the process down and "has not, up to this point, been viewed as something the parties feel would facilitate an agreement."

The old SAG contract expired hours after the studios presented the union with a "final" offer as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition on June 30.

The terms essentially mirror those in the AFTRA deal, and in contracts negotiated with Hollywood writers and directors, which SAG leaders have branded as falling short in several respects, including payments for actors in new media.

SAG presented a counteroffer last month, but the studios refused to budge, insisting negotiations were over and that their proposal be put to union members for a vote.

SAG leaders have so far been unwilling to do so, or to seek the authorization of members to call a strike. Many industry watchers doubt SAG could muster the 75 percent majority needed to back a walkout, in part because of lingering fatigue from the writers strike.

In the meantime, SAG members continue to work under terms of the old contract, a situation the New York board members say is costing members $1.7 million a week.

The studios' bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, also has denied suggestions that back-channel efforts are under way to settle the dispute.

"Claims by SAG's negotiators about informal talks are no more true today than they were when first made two weeks ago," the studios said in a weekend statement.

Reuters/Nielsen

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