In a compromise struck between divided camps within the actors union, the national board of the Screen Actors Guild called for bringing in a federal mediator to break the logjam in contract talks with the Hollywood studios, putting off more drastic plans to seek strike authorization from members.
The resolution appeared aimed at finding middle ground between union hard-liners who wanted an immediate strike vote to give their leaders leverage in stalled contract negotiations and moderates opposed to such action who recently won key seats on the national board and now have a voice in setting its direction.
But SAG’s desire to bring in a federal mediator drew a noncommittal response from the Hollywood studios, which have been adamant that the actors will not be getting a new contract substantially different from those already negotiated by other talent unions. And in a bit of hardball rhetoric pegged to the worsening economy they hinted actors may now even get a worse one.
“There is simply no justification for SAG to expect a deal that is in excess of what the other guilds negotiated in better times,” the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of the major studios, said in a statement.
Meeting at the Los Angeles Marriott Downtown, the national board also agreed to give the union’s negotiating committee authority to seek a strike vote should the mediation efforts fail. The vote came in the first board meeting since a group of moderate actors supported by Tom Hanks and Sally Field won key board seats in the Hollywood division, tilting the balance of power away from the more hard-line incumbent group known as Membership First, which dominates the union’s negotiating committee.
“We hope mediation will help move the process forward,” SAG President Alan Rosenberg said in a statement. “Economic times are tough for all Americans, but we must take a stand for what is fair.”
The national board also voted to add four members to the guild’s 13-member negotiating committee in hopes of jump-starting talks that have languished for months. Although the new committee members haven’t been picked yet, moderates are expected to be allotted three of the four seats, which would only increase their influence.
At the same time, the new board members are walking a political tightrope and are fearful of appearing overly accommodating to the studios.
Actors have been working without a contract since the last one expired June 30. The failure of the two sides to engage in fruitful talks since has led some in Hollywood to believe that the actors were inching their way to a walkout, which would disrupt film and TV production.
A strike authorization gives the union authority to call a strike if bargaining fails, but it requires approval from 75% of members who vote. The board has final say before a walkout can occur.
But the deepening recession has made the prospects of obtaining a strike authorization from members increasingly dim, and some board members fear that failing to muster the necessary votes for strike authorization would further weaken a union that has few remaining options. Three other Hollywood unions -- the directors, the writers and the smaller performers union the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists -- already have signed new contracts with the studios.
Whether the studios will go along with the idea of a federal mediator, or whether one would have much effect on resolving the protracted contract dispute, remains uncertain. The studios aren’t obligated to accept the involvement of a mediator, but rejecting the offer could backfire, creating sympathy for SAG leaders and possibly exposing the studios to allegations of not bargaining in good faith since negotiations have been at a virtual deadlock for months.
Although federal mediators sometimes resolve labor disputes, their track record in Hollywood is poor. A federal mediator was unable to resolve a contract dispute last year between the studios and the Writers Guild of America, which went on a 100-day strike that ended in February.
SAG and the studios are sharply divided over how actors should be paid for work that is distributed over the Internet. The actors union is calling for jurisdiction over all programs created for the Web.
The studios contend that allowing all shows created for the Web to be cast with union labor would strangle a fledgling business. They want to limit union contracts for Internet shows to those with production budgets above specific thresholds.