Friction between Hollywood labor organizations

March 31, 2008 5:35:26 AM PDT
The bitter weekend divorce between two actors unions in upcoming contract talks with Hollywood producers mirrors a scene from a daytime soap opera - and casts stars from the genre in pivotal roles.

The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have long sniped at each other over who better represents some 44,000 actors who are members of both groups.

The last straw, according to AFTRA President Roberta Reardon, was SAG's "relentless campaign of disinformation and disparagement" aimed at enticing actors in the soap drama "The Bold and The Beautiful" to abandon the federation.

The inflamed rhetoric from both unions had the tenor of a steamy romance torn apart by a deceitful affair.

Reardon said in a statement Saturday that AFTRA, which mostly represents broadcast performers, was finished "wasting time assessing whether our partner is being honest with us."

Guild President Alan Rosenberg responded Sunday that his organization, a larger union that represents film and prime-time TV talent, had "no desire" to woo daytime soap stars away from the federation when he and other executives were invited by "Bold" actors Susan Flannery and John McCook to a Los Angeles lunch meeting a month ago.

He called the suggestion that SAG was trying to poach the actors a "calculated" and "cynical" excuse by AFTRA to hasten the end of their partnership.

"They wanted to be out of this relationship for a long time," he said.

Also on Sunday, SAG's board of directors unanimously approved a bargaining proposal package to be used by negotiators in upcoming talks with producers. No specifics of the contract proposals were revealed.

The negotiations with major studios and TV networks over working conditions on theatrical film productions and prime-time television series are at the heart of the tiff between the two groups. The current three-year contract expires June 30.

For 27 years, the guild, representing 120,000 members, and the federation, representing 70,000, had negotiated the contract together.

But the recent 100-day writers strike, which cost the Los Angeles area economy an estimated $2.5 billion, injected new urgency into reaching a contract agreement, as the industry played catch-up to reconnect with deprived audiences.

AFTRA and the producers, represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, have both stressed that they were seeking to reach a deal quickly and avoid another strike.

But SAG, despite entreaties from A-listers like George Clooney and Meryl Streep to hurry up, appeared to be dragging its feet.

Observers said such conflicts were common in a town with large egos and high stakes.

"There's a long history between rival unions in the entertainment industry" going back to Ronald Reagan's days as SAG president in the 1940s and '50s, said Daniel Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It's maybe not surprising that you get these different segments that don't see eye to eye."

The breakup hurts the actors, who will now begin negotiations with CBS, Fox, NBC Universal and other producers with a divided front, Rosenberg said.

It may also force SAG to move up its negotiations from a planned mid-April start as it seeks to prevent AFTRA from negotiating a weaker deal. AFTRA said on Sunday it was already informally discussing with producers a timeline for negotiations.

JoBeth Williams, who played the mother in "Poltergeist" and now portrays Gail on the crime thriller "Dexter," blamed AFTRA for weakening actors' bargaining positions.

"I'm upset that the leadership of AFTRA has taken a step that may undermine the ability of all actors to get the best possible contracts," she said.

Rosenberg said AFTRA's kiss-off may force SAG to enter talks sooner than it had thought.

"The only people they've made happy are the (producers)," he said.

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