Vanessa Juarez
April 04, 2008 AT 12:00 PM EDT

Talk about a big week for union news. First, on March 29, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists announced it would be ending its 27-year-old joint bargaining relationship with the Screen Actor’s Guild ahead of upcoming contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (the current contracts expire June 30). Tensions between the two unions had been mounting over the past year, and just when it seemed like the two sides were making nice came the straw that broke the camel’s back: AFTRA’s claim that SAG was attempting to poach its Bold and the Beautiful actors. It’s unclear exactly how it all went down — historically, AFTRA has negotiated contracts for daytime dramas — but it’s safe to say that the bargaining partnership, known as Phase One, fell apart over a deep-seeded fight over jurisdiction.

SAG’s version of the story, as told to EW.com by SAG president Alan Rosenberg on April 31, puts the blame on AFTRA. “I really thought [AFTRA] would [at] the last minute find some flimsy excuse — which this Bold and the Beautiful thing is — to end this relationship,” Rosenberg said. “And if it hadn’t happened now it would have happened a week or two into negotiations, I’m convinced. Their goal all along has been to be separated from us so they can compete with us. It was despicable.”

Meanwhile, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon has a different version of the story. “Actually, the Bold and the Beautiful event had significant impact, but really, it was the culmination of what we saw as a year-long campaign from the Screen Actor’s Guild Hollywood leadership to defame AFTRA,” Reardon said. She added, “Frankly, I’m kind of surprised by the reaction from the Screen Actor’s Guild since it’s clear that for a year they were trying to get out of Phase One. So now, all of a sudden we’re the bad guys for saying, ‘You lied to us, we’re leaving.’ It’s been very disingenuous to say the least.”

Three days later after AFTRA said it was ending the joint bargaining arrangement, SAG announced that it would go into negotiations with producers on April 15. Given that SAG represents more of the actors affected by these contracts, no one was too surprised that they’d go first, and even Reardon was okay with that. “If the Screen Actor’s Guild [was] going to wait until mid-May then we were definitely going to go in ahead of them, but if they were going to pick up the challenge and go — great,” she said. “I’m happy they’re doing it. That serves all actors.” Twenty-four hours after that, AFTRA said it would begin its talks on April 28.

Even though the directors and writers set a precedent of sorts by hammering out their deals earlier this year, there’s still unfinished business (such as DVD residuals) as well as some issues that will arise that are exclusive to the actors’ unions. Jonathan Handel, who has been following the union news with a microscope, has identified four key areas that will most likely be presented at the negotiation table. One is a new media deal. The second is the status of middle-class actors. “It’s not clear if that translates into wanting greater increases in minimums beyond the usual or if there are other areas that they’re looking to focus on,” Handel says. The third area is forced endorsements. There’s a difference between Kyra Sedgwick’s character on The Closer having a tube of lip gloss on her nightstand (product placement), and Sedgwick picking it up and saying, “This ‘Brandname Product’ lip gloss is the best there is” (forced endorsement).

The final issue is DVD residuals, which Handel says is “a nonstarter” for producers, and given that the directors didn’t push for it, “it’s just not going to happen” for the actors, he says. Rosenberg is also aware of the resistance the unions will face on that issue. “I’m sure we’re going to have a conversation about DVD residuals, which we know the employers are going to resist,” he says. “The goal is to really address the issues in a profound way rather than put a Band Aid on something just because people are tired and weary from the writer’s strike.”

While it’s promising that talks are planned, Hollywood could still be in for a rough ride. SAG is meeting with the AMPTP only two and a half months before its contract is up — by comparison, the writers met with the producers three and a half months early, and look at where that got us. “The likelihood [of a strike] has certainly increased,” Handel says of the SAG-AFTRA split. If there is a strike, the current SAG and AFTRA contracts have no-strike clauses, which means they’re not allowed to walk off the job in solidarity. “We can walk a picket line and every person has First Amendment rights whether they’re going to cross a picket line,” says Reardon, “but we are contractually obligated to go to work under the contract that’s not struck.” In layman’s terms, if SAG went on strike, an AFTRA-rep’d show like Damages would stay in production.

And while the writer’s strike — a $2.5 billion blow to the industry — has been history for almost two months now, Jack Kyser, Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation’s chief economist, says activity is not back to its usual level. “It is very, very tough out there,” he says. “If you look at the January and February employment numbers for L.A. county, what you would see is that we’re down over the year in both January and February. And so if you had a SAG strike and people out of work again, that would put it on the edge of slipping into a recession.”

As for AFTRA and SAG, things are so tense that the Fall/Winter issue of AFTRA’s magazine used the Peloponnesian War as a metaphor to describe the tension between the two guilds, but Reardon remains  hopeful about an eventual resolution. “I got into this because I believe there should be one performer’s union and I still believe that,” she said. “Certainly the trust has been severely damaged, but there are ways to rebuild that trust and we’ll have to see what happens.”

Even though the directors and writers set a precedent of sorts by hammering out their deals earlier this year, there’s still unfinished business (such as DVD residuals) as well as some issues that will arise that are exclusive to the actors’ unions. Jonathan Handel, who has been following the union news with a microscope, has identified four key areas that will most likely be presented at the negotiation table. One is a new media deal. The second is the status of middle-class actors. “It’s not clear if that translates into wanting greater increases in minimums beyond the usual or if there are other areas that they’re looking to focus on,” Handel says. The third area is forced endorsements. There’s a difference between Kyra Sedgwick’s character on The Closer having a tube of lip gloss on her nightstand (product placement), and Sedgwick picking it up and saying, “This ‘Brandname Product’ lip gloss is the best there is” (forced endorsement).

The final issue is DVD residuals, which Handel says is “a nonstarter” for producers, and given that the directors didn’t push for it, “it’s just not going to happen” for the actors, he says. Rosenberg is also aware of the resistance the unions will face on that issue. “I’m sure we’re going to have a conversation about DVD residuals, which we know the employers are going to resist,” he says. “The goal is to really address the issues in a profound way rather than put a Band Aid on something just because people are tired and weary from the writer’s strike.”

While it’s promising that talks are planned, Hollywood could still be in for a rough ride. SAG is meeting with the AMPTP only two and a half months before its contract is up — by comparison, the writers met with the producers three and a half months early, and look at where that got us. “The likelihood [of a strike] has certainly increased,” Handel says of the SAG-AFTRA split. If there is a strike, the current SAG and AFTRA contracts have no-strike clauses, which means they’re not allowed to walk off the job in solidarity. “We can walk a picket line and every person has First Amendment rights whether they’re going to cross a picket line,” says Reardon, “but we are contractually obligated to go to work under the contract that’s not struck.” In layman’s terms, if SAG went on strike, an AFTRA-rep’d show like Damages would stay in production.

And while the writer’s strike — a $2.5 billion blow to the industry — has been history for almost two months now, Jack Kyser, Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation’s chief economist, says activity is not back to its usual level. “It is very, very tough out there,” he says. “If you look at the January and February employment numbers for L.A. county, what you would see is that we’re down over the year in both January and February. And so if you had a SAG strike and people out of work again, that would put it on the edge of slipping into a recession.”

As for AFTRA and SAG, things are so tense that the Fall/Winter issue of AFTRA’s magazine used the Peloponnesian War as a metaphor to describe the tension between the two guilds, but Reardon remains  hopeful about an eventual resolution. “I got into this because I believe there should be one performer’s union and I still believe that,” she said. “Certainly the trust has been severely damaged, but there are ways to rebuild that trust and we’ll have to see what happens.”

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