January 16, 2009 / 4:42 AM / 9 years ago

Hollywood actors union backs off strike threat

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Screen Actors Guild president said on Thursday he now wanted his sharply divided union to vote on the Hollywood studios' latest contract offer, not a strike authorization, in hopes of breaking a months-old deadlock in labor talks.

Embracing a reversal of strategy proposed by his embattled executive director, SAG President Allen Rosenberg said he would also press the studios once more to sweeten their offer before submitting it to rank-and-file members for ratification.

SAG's executive director and chief negotiator, Doug Allen, first outlined such a game plan in an e-mail addressed to union leaders a day after he narrowly avoided being fired during a contentious 30-hour meeting of the union's governing board.

"I think Doug has thought of a really brilliant compromise to help get us out of a logjam that's been created out of our own disunity," Rosenberg told Reuters in a telephone interview. "The board ought to get behind his proposal and hear what he has to say."

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 negotiations collapsed and studios presented their "final" offer for a new deal.

The two sides were most firmly at odds on how actors should be paid for work on the Internet, seen widely as the main distribution pipeline for visual entertainment in the future.

SAG moderates have since pressed for gains in non-Internet areas by urging acceptance of the studios' new-media terms -- essentially the same package approved by several other Hollywood labor groups, including a smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

ABOUT-FACE

SAG's hard-liners, led by Rosenberg and Allen, long held fast to their Internet demands and insisted they needed a credible strike threat to get a better deal.

But support for a vote on whether to give SAG leaders authority to call a strike dwindled steadily amid a worsening economy, with big-name stars such as Tom Hanks, George Clooney and Sally Field publicly opposing a strike referendum.

Moderates who sought to oust Allen remain wary of his abrupt about-face this week.

"He's condemned this approach since the beginning. So an 11th-hour change is puzzling," said Ned Vaughn, a spokesman for the union's moderate faction. "The solution is new leadership, which can get the best deal on this contract and all the others the guild has to negotiate."

SAG still faces negotiation of several more contracts in the near future, including pacts for the advertising industry and basic cable television.

Vaughn also objected to the plan by Allen and Rosenberg to submit management's latest proposal -- sweetened or not -- to members without a recommendation for or against ratification.

"The suggestion that the guild should take a neutral stance on the contract is troubling. Our members deserve a contract that the board recommends ratifying," he said.

Rosenberg said he would urge support for Allen's new strategy in a conference call with guild leaders on Friday, and if he gained a consensus, would suggest polling board members by e-mail to approve the plan.

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 Dan Whitcomb and Peter Cooney

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