Decision Time for Members of AFTRA

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A big decision is due Tuesday for members of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. They're voting on a tentative contract agreement that AFTRA negotiators reached with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. More than half of AFTRA's members are also members of the Screen Actors Guild. And SAG's Hollywood leaders have campaigned to convince the joint cardholders to vote the AFTRA contract down. KPCC's Brian Watt checked in with some actors caught in the middle.

Brian Watt: Here's how tough a call this vote is for some actors. This one wouldn't tell me his name. He's worried about "emotions of the industry." He would tell me he hadn't made up his mind up yet, but he's leaning toward voting against the AFTRA deal and supporting SAG.

Actor X: Because historically, AFTRA has had weaker contracts, historically, SAG has had stronger contracts, and historically, producers have not been the kindest people to actors...

Watt: He was one of 30 or so actors filling a room at The Actors' Network in Studio City. These aren't the Jack Nicholsons or Tom Hanks who'll be fine no matter what happens. For most of these actors, a good year is one when their acting income comes close to covering their bills.

They showed up to hear from entertainment lawyer Jonathan Handel. The former Writers Guild attorney focuses on the intersection of entertainment and technology. Five or six hands shot up when Handel asked...

Jonathan Handel: How many people have worked in a given year, where if you'd worked in one union, you would've met the threshold for good health coverage, but because your work was split between SAG and AFTRA, you didn't?

Watt: AFTRA and SAG share an office building on Wilshire. They run a credit union together. But the idea of joining together as one union has repeatedly failed to garner enough support among members, mainly SAG's. The two unions offer separate pension and health packages. But income from work governed by SAG only counts toward the SAG benefits.

The same goes for the AFTRA benefits. The lines between those jurisdictions used to be clear, but they blurred when AFTRA started grabbing contracts in basic cable. They blur even more on the World Wide Web. For 27 years, the unions could at least agree to join forces when negotiating contracts with the producers alliance. But a turf dispute killed that off this time around.

Kevin West: I just don't see this ending, and it's exactly in the favor of management that every single three years, all we do is have this same stupid cat fight once again over the same stupid stuff!

Watt: That's another dual card holder, Kevin West, who founded the Actors' Network. He'd rather work a SAG gig than an AFTRA one. But West said he's voting for the AFTRA agreement as the lesser of two evils. The other evil is a strike.

And West believes the gains to be made on the picket line would be small ones. His friend, Phil Kaufmann, has already voted in favor of the AFTRA deal. He doesn't believe SAG's leadership can get the union through a strike.

Phil Kaufmann: They have squandered a number of opportunities to build bridges and have instead just blown them up, and sadly, we've come to a place where we have few good choices.

Watt: Actor Keith MacKechnie couldn't make it to the Actors' Network talk. He says he'll vote against the AFTRA contract because it leaves too many key issues in question.

Keith MacKechnie: I think we really have to grab the bull by the horns as much as possible in this negotiation, to try and get a handle on especially the new media issues that we're gonna be dealing with.

Watt: MacKechnie calls the AFTRA contract a "power grab," but he acknowledges SAG's leaders did a lot to push AFTRA into it.