Last Saturday, on the eve of setting up preliminary dates for the start of bargaining with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), representatives of AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) abruptly announced that they were breaking off their 27-year joint-negotiation agreement with SAG (Screen Actors Guild), and entering into contract negotiations with the AMPTP on their own.
Even though there has been a fair amount of bickering between the two unions over the years, the announcement caught SAG leadership totally by surprise. AFTRA (with 70,000 members) is generally considered the more “moderate” of the two unions, the one less likely to do anything rash, such as go on strike. That they’ve decided to break with the larger, more radical SAG (120,000 members), thus ending a tradition that goes all the way back to 1981, has got to be music to the Producers’ ears.
The main reason for the breakaway is that AFTRA believes aligning itself with SAG at the upcoming contract bargain would place them at a disadvantage, that SAG had not only come to dominate the proceedings, but that their arrogance and “saber rattling” risked putting the AMPTP needlessly on the defensive. Even though both AFTRA’s and SAG’s contracts don’t expire until June 30, it’s expected that AFTRA will push to begin contracts talks as early as next week.
Another source of friction between the two unions is the suspicion that SAG, whose members work in movies, television and commercials, has been looking to poach on AFTRA’s turf, which is restricted to television, radio and recording artists.
Not that there isn’t significant overlap. Indeed, the two unions share approximately 44,000 members. In any event, there’s a rumor, denied by SAG leadership, that the larger union was going after jurisdiction of the daytime soap opera, “The Bold and Beautiful,” and was using unethical tactics to do so. SAG already has jurisdiction over such prime-time TV shows as “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Lost.”
It’s also been reported that AFTRA was concerned that SAG was going to jeopardize the upcoming bargain by pressing the studios for, among other things, a larger share of the sales of DVDs, something in which AFTRA has little interest, but which the studios strongly oppose and have gone on record saying they would resist at any cost.
Clearly, AFTRA has felt like the unappreciated stepchild for some time, not only because it has fewer members and, therefore, a lesser role in decision-making, but because SAG, which represents motion picture performers, accounts for far more revenue. For decades there has been talk of getting the two unions (both affiliated with the AFL-CIO) to merge, but they’ve been unable to come to any agreement. Only a few weeks ago, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney attempted to broker a “peace treaty” between the competing unions.
As for SAG, the general consensus is that AFTRA’s defection has left them in a precarious if not nakedly vulnerable position. The dread scenario goes like this: If AFTRA settles with the Alliance for what SAG feels is an inferior contract, the Producers will use the settlement as leverage against the Actors Guild when it comes their turn to negotiate, just as the Alliance used the DGA (Directors Guild of America) settlement against the WGA (Writers Guild of America), following the Writers’ recent 100-day strike against the studios.
Contracts aren’t negotiated in a void. Intentional or not, when contracts get settled, precedents get set. One sign that SAG is already experiencing a sense of urgency is that, as a result of pressure being applied by the membership, it was pushing to begin bargaining immediately-even looking to beat AFTRA to the punch, although, with AFTRA taking the initiative, that wasn’t likely to happen. On Tuesday, SAG announced that it would begin negotiations with the studios on April 15.
But there’s another possibility to consider. Although management may be relishing the prospect of an intra-union squabble, the separate bargaining arrangement could backfire on them. Instead of leading to increased leverage, the split could spell trouble for the studios. Being divorced from AFTRA could unleash the more radical impulses of SAG and induce its negotiators to take a harder line than they would have had they been linked with their more moderate sister union.
Ever since the writers went out on strike last year there have been reports of SAG wanting to hold the studios’ feet to the fire, that the Alliance’s imperious, “Don’t screw with me” stance which it took with the WGA had alienated SAG members. The demand, for example, of a larger share of DVD sales could be the basis for an actors’ walkout, something that no one in Hollywood looks forward to. The industry is still recovering from the WGA strike.
The coming weeks will make clear whether AFTRA’s go-it-alone philosophy was prudent or not. But one thing is for certain: The studios will try to play one union against the other.
DAVID MACARAY, a Los Angeles playwright and writer, was president and chief contract negotiator of the Assn. of Western Pulp and Paper Workers, Local 672, from 1989 to 2000. He can be reached at: email@example.com