SAG, AFTRA Plan More Talks to Work Out Differences

By DARRELL SATZMAN
Staff Reporter

The two largest performers' unions are trying to resolve their differences over digital television and other issues in advance of contract talks with advertisers later this year.

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists plan a third round of discussions later this month to sort out jurisdictional conflicts that officials from both unions say have worked to the advantage of employers.

Any move to formally merge the unions, which share 40,000 members, appears unlikely, but negotiations are expected to yield closer cooperation between the two guilds and a settlement of the thorny digital television dispute.

Currently, both unions claim the right to negotiate digital television contracts on behalf of their members, which they say has given employers added leverage in negotiations. SAG officials last year claimed they were undercut by AFTRA on a handful of 20th Century Fox television pilots shot in a digital format. After threats of a lawsuit, the two unions reached a confidential settlement on those productions. But the larger issue remains of which union, or what combination of the two, has a right to represent actors in digital productions.

"We need to find common ground so we are not being played off against ourselves by producers," said SAG Treasurer Kent McCord. "There are many issues of common interest that we have to resolve."

Although SAG and AFTRA have jointly negotiated portions of contracts since 1981, the unions traditionally maintain separate jurisdictions over productions, with SAG controlling filmed projects and AFTRA overseeing videotaped shows and commercials. The unions' last-minute contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers in 2000 left the lines fuzzy when it came to jurisdiction over the burgeoning area of digital production.

"Everybody knows the system doesn't work now except for the producers," said Amy Aquino, a SAG board member.

Last week, no dates had been set for the next round of meetings, although both sides confirmed they were on. As in earlier rounds, the negotiating committees will be headed by Melissa Gilbert and John Connolly, national presidents of SAG and AFTRA, respectively.

Mutual interests

Besides digital production, areas of mutual concern include jurisdiction over high definition television production, the Internet, union dues, and health and pension benefits for members who belong to both unions.

Both sides have been tight-lipped about the substance of the discussions, instructing committee members not to talk to the news media. Neither Gilbert nor Connolly returned calls.

"There's a huge variety of topics and possibilities. We're really not commenting because there are so many variables," said Jayne Wallace, national communications director for AFTRA.

Another reason for the low profile is that both unions are trying to avoid the public vitriol that accompanied their 1999 merger bid. Although the boards of both unions endorsed the merger, which would have created an entity with 150,000 members, it was rejected in a referendum by more than 54 percent of SAG voters.

Then, as now, proponents of a merger argued that joining forces would give performers more clout in an industry that has been profoundly reshaped through consolidation by the likes of AOL Time Warner, News Corp. and Viacom Inc. that own both entertainment content and the channels that distribute it.

But opponents maintain that a merger isn't necessary because the unions already bargain as one with producers and advertisers.

Furthermore, they say that the interests of actors served by SAG are not the same as those of AFTRA members, some of whom are television newscasters and other personalities. Also unpopular was the prospect of union dues going up under a merger.

The enthusiasm of AFTRA officials may have been further cooled given the precarious state of SAG's health care and pension systems.

Starting this year, SAG members have been required to pay a $50 to $65 monthly fee for their health benefits while the eligibility requirement for full benefits increased to annual minimum earnings of $20,000 from $15,000. Meantime, the minimum annual pay required to earn pension credits increased to $15,000 from $10,000. SAG officials have said that without the changes, the health fund, which lost $36 million in 2002, would have gone bankrupt in two years.

No changes were made to AFTRA's health and pension systems in 2002.

There remains a strong interest by officials in both unions to reach an agreement that would provide a unified front in negotiations later this year with advertisers and next year with producers.

"Our common goal is to protect the wages and working conditions of actors," said McCord, who backed the 1999 merger bid. "It's important that we start looking at the big picture," added McCord, who is not a member of the SAG committee that is negotiating with AFTRA.

The unions' bargaining agreement with advertisers, reached two years ago after a damaging six-month strike, doesn't expire until October, but both SAG and AFTRA said they would prefer to start those negotiations well before the deadline.

In the interim, they will need to sort out their own differences.

"After three years of terrible communication, this has been an ice breaker," Aquino said. "It's good we are spending time talking and not lobbing bombs at one another."

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