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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Escalating Hollywood labor jitters, the Screen Actors Guild said on Wednesday it would hold a long-threatened strike authorization vote next month in a final bid to squeeze a better contract from major studios.
The union, which represents about 120,000 performers, said a "yes" vote by 75 percent of those returning ballots would give its governing board permission to call a strike "if and when the board determines it is necessary."
Ballots will be mailed on January 2 and counted on January 23.
The announcement came 2-1/2 weeks after a federal mediator failed to break months of stalemate in talks over SAG's main contract for film and television work.
An authorization vote does not automatically lead to a strike, but it moves Hollywood a step closer a year after a 14-week work stoppage by writers.
It also comes on the cusp of Oscar season, raising the question of whether A-list stars would be willing to boycott the film industry's highest honors on February 22 to avoid crossing union picket lines.
The sides are deadlocked principally over how much actors should be paid for film and TV content delivered over the Internet and which made-for-Web productions should be covered under the contract.
The Internet is widely seen as the main future distribution pipeline for video entertainment, and Hollywood labor leaders have sought a bigger share of Web revenues.
Actors are currently working under provisions of their old contract, which expired hours after the studios presented SAG a "final" offer on June 30 and refused further negotiations.
That offer mirrors terms approved by other Hollywood guilds this year, including a deal with a separate actors' union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
Following weeks of rising rhetoric, SAG leaders hope a strike authorization will give them leverage to reopen talks with studios and get a better deal.
"SAG members understand that their futures as professional actors are at stake, and I believe that SAG members will ... vote to send us back to the table with the threat of a strike," union president Alan Rosenberg said in a statement.
The industry bargaining agent, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, responded, "It's now official: SAG members are going to be asked to bail out a failed negotiating strategy by going on strike during one of the worst economic crises in history."
After a meeting with about 500 SAG members in Hollywood earlier this week, Rosenberg said support for a strike authorization was overwhelming and he was confident the vote would pass. Otherwise, he said, "we're dead."
He warned defeat would undermine SAG next year in separate negotiations with the advertising and cable TV industries.
The screenwriters strike in late 2007 and early 2008 brought prime-time TV production to a virtual halt and cost the Los Angeles economy an estimated $3 billion.
The last time SAG staged a strike over its main film and TV contract was in 1980, a walkout that lasted three months.
Editing by Alan Elsner