Early SAG and AFTRA agreement with studios points toward labor peace

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Negotiators from the two major actors’ unions reached a tentative contract deal today with film and TV studios in an effort to avoid a re-run of the 2008 Writers Guild of America strike.

Hollywood took an important step this weekend toward heading off the kind of labor strife that hobbled the film and television industry two years ago. Negotiators from the two major actors’ unions reached an early tentative contract deal with film and TV studios.

A writers’ strike. An actors’ standoff. That’s what happened the last time the major contracts were up for negotiation. Few players in that drama are eager for a re-run. So part of the last agreement the Screen Actors Guild made with the Alliance of Motion Picture and TV Producers was to get to the bargaining table early.

The actors’ current contract doesn’t expire until next summer. The new contract includes a 2 percent wage increase every year for the next three.

"The union did the best it could in a tough economy," says Jonathan Handel, a contributing editor to the Hollywood Reporter. "The deal was about bread and butter basically."

Remember the big battle over residuals for new media — i.e. content consumed on the Internet? The actors chose not to fight it much this go-round. Handel says both sides still have a lot to learn.

"The companies themselves are still struggling to figure out how to monetize new media. How to actually make money off of this area," says Handel. "With that, the unions, I think, looked at this and said “we want some improvements in new media, but that’s not our major focus."

The major focus was wages ... and benefits. That’s where the actors dug in. In a joint statement, SAG and AFTRA trumpeted a 10 percent increase in employer contributions to the unions’ pension and health plans.

These are the same two unions that had a cat fight and wound up separately negotiating their current contracts. After that, SAG’s members voted in new, more moderate leaders, leaders who want the two unions to work together and, eventually, to become one. Negotiating the new contract early is an important step towards that.

"If they hadn’t got the deal done, you’d be looking at the first third to half of next year focused on getting a deal done," Handel says. "As a practical matter, it clears the decks."

The boards of SAG and AFTRA still must meet to discuss the deal. That’s not likely until after Thanksgiving. If they approve it, the contract goes to members of both unions for a ratification vote.

Next week, the Directors Guild is scheduled to begin its contract talks with the studios. The Writers Guild isn’t likely to start talks until next year. But for the first time in a good while, the directors and screenwriters could take a lot of cues from a script the actors have written.

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