Why Hollywood Actors’ Contract Talks Could Get Rocky

Why Hollywood Actors' Contract Talks Could Get Rocky

Merged SAG-AFTRA wants to reconcile its two deals but could lose its bargaining point man David White

With the Directors Guild negotiations wrapped and the Writers Guild close to sealing its deal, Hollywood's actors will soon be the only group of industry creatives without a new contract.

The directors deal came relatively quickly and with a minimum of grief, and was ratified in January. The writers have scheduled talks on Monday and Tuesday, with only TV exclusivity issues standing in the way of a deal. But when the merged Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists sit down at the table with the networks and movie studios, it will be more complicated and could get sticky.

Also read: Writers Guild, Producers Have a Deal — Except for TV Hitch

No date has been set for the start of negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers for a successor to the current three-year feature film and primetime TV contract, which expires June 30. That will come after the WGA is wrapped, and neither side was talking for this article. If it's in May rather than April, it would be a tight window, and there are factors that complicate things:

>> The union could lose its lead negotiator before the bargaining begins. National executive director David White is a final candidate for a similar post with the National Basketball Players Assn.

>> Though they've bargained jointly before, this will be the first time that SAG and AFTRA will be negotiating a master agreement together since the two unions merged in 2012. Reconciling the two unions’ separate contracts, particularly in TV, ensures that there will be plenty of bedeviling detail work.

>> The fact that the other two unions will have done their deals means that there will be a template for an agreement in place. That gives SAG-AFTRA a handle on how far the studios are likely to go on wages and working conditions, but also means they'll have to give up something if they want to top those levels.

If the WGA does reach a deal next week, it is expected to be along the lines of the DGA's, which included an annual 3 percent wage increase; increased residual bases; improvements in basic cable; the establishment of minimum terms for high-budget new media content made for subscription services such as Netflix; and the establishment of a formal diversity program at every major TV studio.

Also read: Directors Guild Members Ratify New Contract With TV, Film Producers

SAG-AFTRA's deal will probably ultimately look like DGA's as well.

“But in addition to the basic bread-and-butter matters, they've got issues that are their's alone. The studios know that and might say, ‘We'll help you with that,’ but in exchange for who knows what?” said Alan Brunswick, a labor specialist at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips and former vice-president and in-house counsel with the AMPTP.

That said, merging the two contracts should in time make it simpler for the AMPTP to manage, so the producers have some motivation to find a solution on that front, too.

White, who joined SAG in 2009 and was key to implementation of the merger, began was identified as one of two finalists for the NBA Players Association job last month. That didn't sit well with some of the union's Membership First faction, which blasted White's candidacy, saying that his “consideration of another job, specifically at this crucial time, only illustrates his ego-driven disregard for the union and its members.”

Hope for a quick answer on whether he'd go or stay faded last week when a group of NBA players voiced concerns about the process by which White and litigation attorney Michele Roberts were chosen as finalists. They asked for a delay on making a final choice, putting White and SAG-AFTRA in a limbo that could continue until the NBA season is over in June. The dispute even set off a dueling op-ed pieces from Excel Sports Management president Jeff Schwartz on ESPN.com and the NBPA's president, Clippers star Chris Paul.

Also read: Talent Manager Groups Slam SAG-AFTRA's Code of Ethics and Union Fires Back

White hasn't spoken publicly about the situation. If he does wind up leaving, the most likely candidates to lead the union's negotiating team along with president Ken Howard are Associate National Executive Director Mathis Dunn, Senior Adviser John McGuire, Chief Contracts Officer Ray Rodriguez or General Counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. Their opposite number will be AMPTP President Carol Lombardini, who has been in her post since 2009, and headed the talks with the directors and writers.

Also read: Contract Time Is Coming: Now, What About That Combined SAG-AFTRA Clout?

White's uncertain status may contribute to what could may be a slog to an agreement. But barring a bargaining lightning bolt, there won't be anything like the mess surrounding the talks two rounds ago in 2008.

That's when AFTRA suspended joint negotiations and cut its own deal with producers. Outraged SAG members lobbied AFTRA's rank-and-file and the roughly 45,000 members with joint membership to defeat ratification of their sister union's agreement — but that didn't work. And with a membership too divided by the battle to authorize a strike vote, SAG couldn't reach a deal until more than a year later when it fired White's predecessor, Doug Allen.

“The reality this time is that both sides want to get a deal done,” said Brunswick, “and I don't think that anyone believes they won't.”

  • Sane Alaskan

    “…..their's alone.” Really? You're a reporter and you have an editor and you think “their's” is correct? Wowza.

  • kayten

    Everyone in the industry knows that SAG-AFTRA's negotiations WILL get rocky. The more interesting article would be why it won't.

  • Dan Kelpine

    Let White Go! During the 2008 TV/Theatrical negotiations, SAG had its National elections and ‘Unite for Strength’ (UFS) (SAG-members/Producers), gained approximately 3.2% majority of the National Board. Fired the NED, Doug Allen, muted the SAG president from speaking to the membership or press; then created the disparagement agreement to keep SAG Board Members from saying little or nothing about what was going on. David White was hired, he replaced an amazing Negotiating Committee with his Task Force, only to be given an ultimatum by the AMPTP to take the offer or leave it, and gave White 60 days to ratify the agreement or not. The new 3.2% majority of the SAG National Board, nearly let the 60 days lapse to where the AMPTP could of imposed the deal on us without a vote by the SAG membership. The SAG membership got it's Vote just days before the AMPTP offer was due to expire. But, only after they (UFS) discovered, that they were being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). This is but a very small part of how the Screen Actors Guild was dismantled from the inside by the slate that calls themselves ‘Unite for Strength'. “This Deal Sucks!”, is what David White declared after his Task Force was given the AMPTP ultimatum. But two days later was pushing a Yes Vote to the SAG membership for ratification and declaring how good the deal was. We have basically lost our vote on what influences the members lives because of the merger. We are now governed by convention, many that are not even Actors in the professional since, that vote and decide what is best for the Actor, but yet has no clue of what Actors need. So now we are merged and One, and as we were told, there is power in numbers. The 2014 TV/Theatrical negotiations should be a cake walk for SAG-AFTRA and nothing, I repeat; Nothing should be given away to the AMPTP because we have the numbers to go up against Goliath with renewed vigor if the leadership has any balls and really wants to see the New Union succeed as SAG had succeeded. Let White GO! We don't need him! Let him screw up the NBA as he has screwed Up the once Proud Screen Actors Guild. Let White GO!
    Better Yet Fire his Ass!

    • Tom Ligon

      Isn't it interesting how the “outraged members” – like the guy above – are always the Membership First folks who were all thumbs for their three years in power at SAG and couldn't negotiate a single major contract? Back off, dude, and let the adults run the show.