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Strike looms as actors negotiate commercials pact

By Andrew Salomon and Jay A. Fernandez
/ Source: Reuters

By Andrew Salomon and Jay A. Fernandez

NEW YORK/LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - As if actors needed more bad news about labor talks, there's this: Leaders of the two main Hollywood performers' unions are considering sending out strike-authorization ballots unless negotiations with advertisers on a new commercials contract improve quickly.

A labor insider says representatives of the advertising industry are asking for "radical" rollbacks, including the elimination of the traditional pay structure on national broadcast commercials and caps on contributions to the unions' pension and health plans. Labor negotiators also are concerned about a proposal to extend the working day to 10 hours from eight, thus reducing overtime pay.

If strike-authorization ballots are sent out, they would be distributed jointly by the Screen Actors Guild and the smaller American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to members of both labor organizations.

The negotiating committee for the commercial talks is made up of 13 AFTRA members and 13 SAG members, seven of whom come from SAG-Hollywood.

SAG-Hollywood is dominated by the oft-militant MembershipFirst faction, which accounted for a majority of the onetime negotiating committee on SAG's long-running film and TV contract talks. That SAG committee was replaced by a task force under chief negotiator John McGuire after the dismissal of SAG executive director Doug Allen.

NEW CHALLENGES

Labor insiders say it has become something of a pattern in commercials talks for management negotiators to play hardball until a strike-authorization vote is held.

But there are new challenges in the current set of talks that represent a worrisome wild card should negotiations remain strained. Most notably, ad-industry negotiators want to implement a new payment system based on a study by consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton suggesting that actors are overpaid for national commercials and underpaid for work on cable TV and Internet ads.

Both SAG and AFTRA require approval of a strike-authorization ballot by 75 percent of voting members. Even if such a majority were mustered, it would be unlikely to lead to an immediate walkout over the commercial talks, but it could strengthen labor's bargaining hand.

It's more of a toss-up whether a strike authorization would quickly translate into an actual strike if SAG were to conduct such a vote over its stalled film and TV negotiations. At present, those talks are at an impasse.

The current commercials contract expires March 31, and that alone has amped tension. SAG members already are working under six expired contracts covering various sorts of film and TV work.

"This is unprecedented," a labor insider said. "It's craziness."

A draft copy of a possible strike-authorization proposal circulated Tuesday. But at least publicly, the labor groups downplayed its importance and pledged patience with the bargaining process.

"We are making every effort to negotiate a fair contract and remain optimistic that we will bring these talks to a successful conclusion," SAG and AFTRA said in a joint statement.

"Today, there was an unauthorized distribution of a draft strike-authorization letter. This is one of many contingency documents that we prepare in the course of any negotiations, particularly as we approach the expiration of a contract. Our members understand that this is a normal part of the bargaining process, (and) we will continue to bargain in good faith with the industry in an effort to get a deal."