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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Union hard-liners prevailed in a showdown at the Screen Actors Guild on Tuesday, defeating attempts by moderates to scuttle a planned strike referendum and oust negotiators they blamed for stalled contract talks with Hollywood's major studios.
The outcome of the 30-hour meeting by SAG's sharply divided national board left in doubt, however, when union leaders might go ahead with a vote seeking formal permission from rank-and-file members to call a strike.
Faced with dwindling support for a strike authorization amid a worsening economy, SAG leaders announced last month they would delay the referendum for at least three weeks, until after the January 12-13 board meeting, in hopes of restoring consensus.
In a terse statement issued at the end of the closed-door session, SAG said only that "no substantive actions were taken" and that "no mailing date has been set for the previously approved" strike referendum ballots.
Uncertainty over a strike vote also leaves in question whether next month's Oscars might be caught up in a labor confrontation.
SAG's 120,000 members have been without a film and prime-time TV contract since their old labor pact expired on June 30, after studios presented their "final" offer.
That proposal essentially mirrors terms accepted by several other Hollywood labor groups, including a smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
SAG President Alan Rosenberg and executive director Doug Allen have nonetheless pressed for a better deal, making good on a long-standing pledge to take a tougher stance in labor talks than their immediate predecessors.
They remain firmly at odds with the studios over issues that center on how actors should be paid for work distributed over the Internet.
Absent a credible strike threat as leverage to sweeten the deal, Rosenberg and Allen have insisted the union has no choice but to settle for management's latest offer.
But union moderates who gained a slim majority on the 71-seat national board in September elections have accused Rosenberg and Allen, the chief negotiator, of mishandling the labor talks.
They sought going into this week's meeting to replace Allen and the rest of the negotiating committee with a new bargaining team and to reopen contract talks by agreeing to give up the union's most contentious demands.
According to an online account of the board meeting by The Hollywood Reporter, union moderates had the votes to pass their plan but were beaten back by the more militant wing, called Membership First, in a series of parliamentary moves.
"This means continued stalemate," said Jonathan Handel, a labor lawyer with ties to both labor and management circles in Hollywood. "It just seems very unlikely with the same people in the room on SAG's side that a deal is going to get done."
Disagreement over what negotiation strategy SAG should pursue has deeply splintered Hollywood's largest union, even among the film and television industry's biggest stars.
George Clooney, Tom Hanks and Sally Field were among dozens of A-list performers lending their name to a campaign against a strike authorization, which would require a 75 percent majority of those voting to pass. Others, including Mel Gibson, Martin Sheen and Holly Hunter, favor the referendum.
Anti-strike sentiment has been heightened by fatigue from a 14-week Hollywood writers strike that ended in February and cost the Los Angeles-area economy about $3 billion as production ground to a halt on most prime-time TV shows.
Editing by Eric Beech