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Fractious actors' unions expected to restore joint bargaining with studios

Richard Verrier
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

LOS ANGELES — Hollywood's squabbling actors unions appear to be ready to bury the hatchet.

It's been almost two years since the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists broke off its 27-year bargaining arrangement with the Screen Actors Guild, with whom it waged turf battles, including a tiff over the CBS soap "Bold and Beautiful."

But this coming Sunday, a key committee of AFTRA is expected to recommend to its national board that the union resume joint bargaining with SAG for prime-time TV contracts, people familiar with the meeting said. Combining forces would strengthen the unions' bargaining clout against the studios, guild officials believe.

Frosty relations between the unions have thawed since a moderate coalition of actors consolidated their power on SAG's board and vowed to push for a merger of the unions. SAG's recently elected president, Ken Howard, made ending the feud a key platform of his recent campaign and has talked with AFTRA chief Roberta Reardon about mending relations.

While a merger of the two actors unions is not on the immediate horizon, representatives on both sides are paving the way toward restoring joint bargaining, which nonetheless remains unpopular among a significant group of actors in Hollywood.

If the boards of both unions agree, joint early negotiations on a new contract with the studios would begin in October. The sides agreed to early talks for the next round of bargaining even though SAG's current contract doesn't expire until 2011.

But there is a glitch: The timing would conflict with another contract — covering actors who work in daytime television — that AFTRA must negotiate by Nov. 15, and bargaining two contracts simultaneously could be problematical. As a result, AFTRA is expected to either accelerate those talks on a daytime contract or seek an extension so it can negotiate at a later time.

The split between the unions has been disastrous for SAG, most notably by undermining SAG's bargaining leverage during the last contract negotiations when AFTRA secured a separate deal a year sooner than its sister union. Parting ways also gave AFTRA an opportunity swoop in and secure the majority of contracts for prime time TV pilots, an area that SAG once dominated.

That trend has continued. Although it's still early in the TV development season, AFTRA has already picked up contracts for 15 pilots for prime-time shows this year and is on pace to secure more than it did last year, according to the union.

Still, a restoration of Phase One is unlikely to end the source of friction between the actors unions, which still bargain separately in a number of other areas, such as video games and daytime TV (AFTRA doesn't negotiate feature contracts). SAG's Howard has made it clear that the ultimate goal is to merge the separate unions so they can present a united front in dealings with the studios.

A merger remains controversial with SAG, however. Opponents have defeated previous merger attempts, fearing the union would lose its autonomy and that the unions have little in common. AFTRA's 70,000 members include not only recording artists but disc jockeys and broadcasters. SAG represents 120,000 actors.

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