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All Together Now: Hollywood Labor Talks Begin Anew — in Harmony

SAG and AFTRA begin first round of major contract negotiations with AMPTP on Monday, with the rhetoric and acrimony dialed way down

And so it begins again … only this time, it probably won’t be nearly as destructive.

On Monday, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists will begin joint negotiations with Hollywood employers on their respective TV deals, which expire next June.

The talks kick off a next-round of major-guild contract renewal talks that will also soon involve the DGA and WGA.

But this round should look nothing like the last one, a nuclear bomb of discord that shook Hollywood to its knees.

The reason: SAG is at peace with AFTRA, and is now under the control of moderate national president Ken Howard (below, right) and chief negotiator David White — the man who settled the guild’s last major deal.

Likewise, AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon and her chief negotiator, Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, aren’t known for their inflammatory rhetoric during negotiations, and neither are Directors Guild of America president Taylor Hackford and longtime lead negotiator Gil Cates. (The DGA is set to begin negotiations on its major contracts in mid-November). 

Even the Writers Guild of America has adopted leadership that’s widely seen as more pragmatic, with John Wells taking over the presidency from Patric Verrone.

In fact, SAG and AFTRA will begin negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in Sherman Oaks amid a press blackout — a major contrast from the public blood feuding that went on last time around.

Meanwhile, what little rhetoric that has seeped out has the guilds focused on such meat-and-potatoes issues as pension and healthcare funding, a distinct contrast from the lighting-rod new-media and residuals issues that were front-and-center during the last round of major negotiations.

And perhaps most important: given the state of the global economy, not to mention the recent level of acrimony, few in Hollywood seem to be in the mood right now to pick a labor fight.

Or, as one executive close to the negotiations put it: “I think everyone’s pretty tired.”

For anyone new to the town, it was at this point that the last flurry of Hollywood guild talks began to go off the tracks.

That time, the WGA infamously went into negotiations first, proposing to the Alliance of Motion Picture and TV Producers — the organization that negotiates on behalf of studios and networks — that residuals on DVD be doubled and that new media residuals come in at about eight times the traditional rate for home video.

The response from the AMPTP, of course, was a big “Uh … no,” setting off a nasty, very public back-and-forth that finally culminated on Feb. 12, 2008, after the WGA had been on strike for over three months.

Not to be outdone, the two major talent guilds, SAG and AFTRA, engaged in a bit of their own brinksmanship with AMPTP, fighting bitterly with each other along the way. 

By the time SAG finally ratified a new TV/Theatrical deal in June 2009 — months after AFTRA had reached its own agreement and about a year after negotiations first started — former guild national president Alan Rosenberg and his hardline Membership First coalition had been tossed out of power, ultimately ceding control to moderate Howard and his AFTRA-merger-minded Unite For Strength moderates.

And that’s where we pick up this time around.

After Thursday’s SAG board-election announcements, Unite for Strength finds itself in a dominant position, controlling 75 percent of the Hollywood Division vote. 

SAG, which touts 120,000 members, sharing 44,000 with AFTRA, which counts a total of 70,000, seems to be on a course toward imminent merger with its sister labor orgnization.

But first come negotiations with the AMPTP, a prospect both think they’re better prepared to handle now that they’re working side-by-side again.

Of most pressing concern are pension and health funds, which have been battered by the last few recessionary years.

In fact, SAG and AFTRA have reported respective 22.7 percent and 23.4 percent declines to their P&H funds, with the studios and networks churning out less product, and thus contributing less to these accounts.

In recent internal publications, DGA leaders have told their membership that P&H issues will be their top priority in upcoming talks.

A key negotiation precedent to note: the Teamsters Local 399, which represents Hollywood transportation workers, threatened to strike over the summer, with the AMPTP unwilling to come up off of 2 percent annual wage increases. 

It was pension and healthcare concessions on behalf of the AMPTP that led to a deal getting completed.

As for the AMPTP, the same collection of studio lawyers and personnel remain largely intact from the last round of major contracts, save for longtime lead negotiator Nick Counter, who died in November.

Carol Lombardini, who worked with Counter for years, will take his place.