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Actors may be owed over writers strike

Times Staff Writer

The writers strike may have ended four months ago, but the studios still have checks to write -- at least according to actors.

Because of an obscure provision in the contract between the Screen Actors Guild and the Hollywood studios, hundreds of actors could be owed more than $10 million in back pay as a result of being thrown out of work when the writers strike shut down TV production last year.

SAG has quietly lodged claims against more than 80 shows on behalf of “series regulars” who lost their jobs temporarily during the writers walkout, which shut down such hit shows as “Lost,” “CSI” and “Ugly Betty.” The union contends the producers violated a so-called force majeure clause in the current contract that entitles actors to receive roughly 2 -1/2 weeks’ pay if they are suspended due to extraordinary circumstances such as a strike. Series regulars include stars and those who have a recurring role on a show.

“The employers have refused to live up to their contractual obligations and have instead attempted to shift the studios’ financial obligations onto the backs of the actors who are their employees,” said SAG general counsel Duncan Crabtree-Ireland.

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Jesse Hiestand, spokesman for the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the studios, said he could not comment on the claims because they were part of a pending arbitration proceeding.

Force majeure has emerged as a sticking point in the negotiations that resumed last week between the studios and SAG. The current contract expires June 30. Producers want to revamp the system, which they contend is too costly. They propose that actors individually negotiate force majeure terms when they are hired. SAG says that’s unacceptable.

The American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, the smaller actors union that negotiated a prime-time TV pact with studios last week, decided not to grapple with the force majeure issue, instead letting SAG take the lead. AFTRA, which represents musicians, radio announcers and actors who work in daytime TV and reality programs, has jurisdiction over only a handful of prime-time shows.

SAG filed its claims in February, shortly after the writers strike ended. The 122,000-member union has demanded that the matter be reviewed by a third-party arbitration panel, which will have final say. A ruling, however, may take at least six months, providing little relief to actors who faced financial hardships caused by a strike that was not their own.

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That’s why SAG negotiators have pressed the matter in their own negotiations, which have been overshadowed by a turf war with AFTRA.

SAG leaders have not yet publicly commented on the new AFTRA contract. But in a private meeting Monday with Sony Pictures Chairman Michael Lynton, SAG President Alan Rosenberg and Executive Director Doug Allen said the accord would be inadequate for their members. Rosenberg told Lynton he would work to defeat the AFTRA pact, said two people familiar with the meeting who were not authorized to speak about the matter.

The AFTRA accord was modeled on a contract negotiated by writers that SAG leaders have criticized. Although it included pay gains for actors, the contract did not achieve an increase in residuals from the sale of DVDs or give actors a say when products are pitched on TV shows -- two important issues for the union.

“We had a frank and cordial exchange and made the point that it was important for the industry that a deal be reached as early as possible,” said Jim Kennedy, spokesman for Sony Pictures.

“The best way to do that is by negotiating with the AMPTP, and everyone’s energies should be expended in that direction,” he said.

AFTRA’s board will vote on the pact this weekend, with members voting later.

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richard.verrier@latimes.com

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