Are actors headed for a strike?

July 22, 2008

Cindy Kaffen looks at the stakes in the contract battle between the actors' union and Hollywood producers.

THREE WEEKS after the expiration of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) contract, the film and TV industry are waiting for signs of movement on either side.

As during the 100-day writers strike this past winter, the major sticking point is whether 120,000 actors covered under the SAG agreement will be paid residuals for productions either made for, or distributed on, digital media.

So far, the employers' Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) has been relatively successful in using divide-and-conquer tactics in its dealings with entertainment industry unions. The AMPTP is set on using their deal with the Directors Guild of America (signed in January during the writers' strike, even as the bosses refused to negotiate with the writers) as a template for the rest of the industry.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike was a step forward for labor in many ways--including the level of organization within the writers union, the solid picket lines, and especially of the support and solidarity of SAG, as well as the public.

The writers' strike against producers won strong solidarity from many other Hollywood unions
The writers' strike against producers won strong solidarity from many other Hollywood unions (Cindy Kaffen | SW)

But the bosses at the top of the AMPTP (such as billionaires Rupert Murdoch of Fox and Sumner Redstone of Viacom, plus Robert Iger of Disney, who was paid $27.7 million in compensation in 2007) took a hard line. They were able to use the inferior DGA deal and the threat of the looming economic recession to put pressure on the WGA to settle short of its agenda of jurisdiction and residuals parity in digital media production and distribution.

The AMPTP has said it has given its "final offer" to SAG negotiators--with a deadline, in essence, of August 15, since after that date, any new contract would no longer be retroactive to July 1.

In another divide-and-conquer tactic, the AMPTP convinced the conservative leadership of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) to break off from its usual process of joint negotiations with SAG to sign a separate deal for primetime television contracts. AFTRA represents about 70,000 performers and is seen by many actors as a "bargain-basement" union that has a history of undercutting SAG.

Although SAG launched a "vote no" campaign to convince the 44,000 AFTRA members who also hold SAG cards to reject the DGA-template contract, AFTRA members voted to accept the deal on July 8, though with only 62 percent approval.

The process was further complicated by a counter-campaign waged by some high-profile and highly paid actors, including Tom Hanks, Susan Sarandon and Sally Field. These actors signed on to a petition calling on dual cardholders to accept the AFTRA deal. "Either our employers will lock us out, or SAG will strike," it said. "There really is no alternative if the AFTRA deal is defeated."

In response, other actors, including Jack Nicholson, Ben Stiller, Martin Sheen and Viggo Mortensen, called for a "no" vote and restated their support for the goals that the SAG leadership is fighting for.

SAG leaders have not yet called for a strike authorization vote, which would have to pass by a 75 percent majority. Divisions within the SAG membership make that unlikely, as does the lack of support shown from people like Maria Elena Durazo, the executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, who enthusiastically supported the AFTRA contract.

Instead, Doug Allen, SAG's national executive director and chief negotiator, told members in a July 17 statement that "No deal is better than a bad deal...We have to be patient."

To win a decent contract and defeat a potential studio lockout, SAG will need a more aggressive strategy than patience.

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