Why SAG, AFTRA Fight Will Spill Over Into Ad Negotiations

Nerves Still Frayed Over Actors Unions' Conflicting Negotiations With Broadcasters

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LOS ANGELES (AdAge.com) -- If you were hoping the bitter acrimony that has splintered Hollywood's actors unions, SAG and AFTRA, might be resolved in time to avoid similar brinksmanship over the commercials contract that expires this fall, think again.
SAG president Alan Rosenberg and AFTRA president Roberta Reardon
SAG president Alan Rosenberg and AFTRA president Roberta Reardon Credit: AP/AFTRA

In a joint interview with Advertising Age and KCRW, Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists National President Roberta Reardon traded barbs and accusations yesterday -- a day after AFTRA approved a new three-year contract with Hollywood's producers for prime-time TV that SAG tried to block -- while nonetheless expressing a desire for "peace" and "joint negotiations."

Seeking peace, in theory
"I am all for peace," said Mr. Rosenberg. "I am all for these contracts being negotiated together."

"There are a lot of reasons to recommend a joint bargaining process," Ms. Reardon said.

The two unions have been at odds for years, but had, until now, always found a way to negotiate with producers together. In September 2006, both unions had signed a two-year extension to their commercials agreement with the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies that expires Oct 29. The memberships of SAG and AFTRA voted 95.8% in favor of that extension -- the last time the unions were in lockstep on anything.

This year, however, for the first time in 27 years, infighting resulted in separate talks over the prime-time TV and theatrical contract, even though some 44,000 SAG members are also part of the almost-70,000-member AFTRA. (SAG is still negotiating with producers on its own film and TV contract.) SAG's all-out campaign to derail AFTRA's tentative prime-time TV deal led to 62.4% of AFTRA's membership voting to make the deal.

"I was always for our negotiating this TV-theatrical contract together," Mr. Rosenberg said. "As a result of our not doing that, I believe there is a contract on the table that AFTRA has now ratified, and which we now have to deal with, that's inadequate and which will damage actors over the next three years.

Not backing down
"But regardless of our history, regardless of whatever acrimony exists, whether I had a hand in it or not, the members have been screwed by it, and we shouldn't make the same mistake on the commercials contract," he added.

Ms. Reardon agreed in principle, saying that when it comes to commercials, "We should be able to sit together as a group of performers and bargain with our employers." But, she added: "I have to say that an expensive, ferocious campaign to attack the AFTRA contract makes it much harder for us to sit down together. ... This is an unconscionable attack on another union's internal process."

Still, more than any past rancor over how to negotiate their film and TV contract, it's the size and earnings disparity between the two unions that threatens to make detente impossible: While both unions represent performers, SAG has more members and its members earn exponentially more, because SAG's contracts often pay more and only SAG covers film work.

Mr. Rosenberg explained, "Over the last three years, the earnings under this contract for AFTRA were $43 million, as opposed to $4 billion for the Screen Actors Guild. It made no point for the union that had the minority stake to be going in and setting a template that we all had to live by. The same thing is true of commercials."

He added, "I always felt it made no sense for AFTRA to have a 50% stake in these negotiations. However, at the end of the day, we backed off that. What's fair, to me, is do these things proportionally, but that's not the same as what's possible. ... 'Jointly' doesn't necessarily mean 50/50, does it?"

How much room at the table?
No, but if SAG hopes to avoid being pitted against AFTRA in the upcoming fall negotiations on commercials, it will have to offer the lesser union a disproportionate share of seats at the table -- to Ms. Reardon, "jointly" can only mean "equally."

"If we're going to do this jointly, we're going to do this 50/50. We're not going to go in have a minority status on what is essentially our contract," said Ms. Reardon, adding, "Any other way, we'll just be doing it separately."
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