Why Hollywood Actors’ Contract Talks Could Get Rocky

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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.”