United States: New dispute looms as actors' contracts expire

July 5, 2008

On June 30, the collective agreements covering actors in the US television industry expired.

The negotiations for a new agreement, which started in mid-April, have grown increasingly heated. The tensions are not only between the large media conglomerates — represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), on the one hand, and the unions representing actors, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Arts (AFTRA), on the other — but between the unions themselves.

The central point that has emerged, as in the writers' strike ealier this year, has been what the artists' share of revenues (residuals) from "new media", such as the internet, should be. The AFTRA have reached a tentative agreement with the AMPTP for work on primetime television shows and have began balloting its 70,000 members on June 17, with results expected on July 8.

However, the SAG leadership argue that the AFTRA-endorsed agreement is inadequate as it allows non-union new media production. It also fails to increase the income of working actors from current projects; does not increase pension/health contributions enough; provides no increases in residuals from DVDs; eliminates most residuals for reruns of productions made for new media.

SAG's leadership also argues that the AFTRA agreement will undercut the bargaining position of the SAG and have launched a campaign urging the 44,000 members of SAG who are dual members of the AFTRA to vote against the tentative agreement.

Both unions have involved prominent actors campaigning for their position in the ballot. Tom Hanks, Sally Field, Kevin Spacey and Alec Baldwin have publicly campaigned for a "yes" vote, while Jack Nicholson, Ben Stiller, Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and Viggo Mortensen have actively supported the SAG's "no" campaign.

On July 2, the AMPTP made what it has referred to as a final offer to the SAG. The SAG negotiating team have requested until July 7 to review the offer.

The AMPTP have made a number of statements that the industry is facing a de facto actors' strike. On June 29, SAG president Alan Rosenberg told the Associated Press: "We have taken no steps to initiate a strike authorization vote by the members of Screen Actors Guild." He continued, "any talk about a strike or a management lockout at this point is simply a distraction".

A strike authorisation would require 75% majority vote of SAG's 122,000 members. SAG has informed its members that they should continue to work and that this work will be continued under the conditions of the expired contract.

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