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SAG delays strike vote, calls special board meeting

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Shaken by growing internal dissent that is splintering Hollywood’s largest union, the Screen Actors Guild has postponed plans for a controversial strike authorization vote until after the union’s national board meets to discuss the matter.

The union’s 120,000 members were poised to vote on the planned strike referendum next month, with ballots going out Jan. 2 and tabulated by Jan. 23.

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But in an e-mail to board members Monday night, SAG Executive Director Doug Allen said he and SAG President Alan Rosenberg agreed to push back the strike referendum until after the board convened a special meeting Jan. 12 to ‘address the unfortunate division and restore consensus.’

‘This division does not help our effort to get an agreement from the [studios] that our members will ratify,’’ Allen wrote. ‘This will provide us with more time to conduct member education and outreach on the referendum before the balloting.’

The move doesn’t mean Hollywood will avoid its second strike in a year, after the 100-day walkout by writers that ended in February. But it does suggest the union’s leadership is facing mounting pressure from within the ranks to reconsider its options amid a historic recession that would make a strike authorization difficult. A work stoppage must be approved by 75% of members who vote.

SAG members also have expressed growing concerns that a strike would weaken the union while strengthening the smaller actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, which has already signed a deal with the studios and picked up a number of television pilots.

The union’s leadership has argued that a strike authorization vote is necessary to give them leverage in stalled contract negotiations with the studios. The actors have been without a contract since June 30.

SAG’s negotiating committee announced plans to seek a strike vote last month, after efforts by a federal mediator to jump-start negotiations failed.

But the decision has touched off a firestorm in the guild, pitting actor against actor and creating a level of discord that is unusual even by SAG’s standards. Tempers flared last weeek, when SAG’s New York division members openly rebuked Rosenberg and demanded he call off the strike vote. Rosenberg initially spurned the idea, saying that would undermine the union and only benefit the studios.

Celebrities have lined up on either side of the fracas. More than 130 high-profile actors, including Tom Hanks, Robert Redford and George Clooney, have also urged the union to reconsider its decision. But celebrities including Mel Gibson, Rob Schneider and former SAG President Ed Asner have sided with the leadership, arguing that the studios’ contract offer is unacceptable and threatens the future of actors in the digital era.

Allen’s e-mail was sent out after he and Rosenberg met earlier in the day with actors Ned Vaughn and ‘Chicago Hope’ star Adam Arkin, representatives of Unite for Strength, a coalition of actors with moderate views that recently won key seats on the national board.

In a statement, the actors said they expressed their concerns about the ‘growing rift’ over the strike authorization referendum. ‘We feel it’s imperative that the National Board have a chance to reconsider whether the referendum should proceed, given what’s been happening. We appreciate that they’ve taken our concerns seriously.’

Just what the board may do at the Jan. 12 meeting is uncertain. While Allen said in the e-mail that the strike vote would begin immediately after the meeting, that’s by no means clear.

In fact, moderates, who hold a slim majority on the board, are expected to press for a delay in the strike vote to see if negotiations with the studios can resume. The board could vote to replace the current negotiating committee with a task force, as New York division board members have advocated, or even move to have Allen step aside as chief negotiator.

--Richard Verrier


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