Tuesday night's announcement that the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) has reached a tentative contract deal with the studios is less significant than it might sound -- and it by no means guarantees that Hollywood actors won't go on strike this summer. The stronger, and much more militant, Screen Actors Guild hasn't agreed to anything yet. And SAG has made it clear from the beginning of contract negotiations that it will go its own way. In fact, SAG often seems to regard AFTRA as the enemy rather than a fraternal union. Just Tuesday SAG sent a letter to its members
attacking AFTRA for holding "confidential sessions'' to bargain with the studios.
The smaller AFTRA represents soap-opera actors, TV weathermen, musicians, reality show hosts, announcers and other performers on the periphery of television production, about 70,000 in all. SAG's 120,000 members include everybody else, including most film and TV actors. (About 44,000 people belong to both unions, which means the number of Hollywood workers exclusively represented by AFTRA is only about 26,000.) They've been squabbling for some time now over jurisdictional issues -- particularly AFTRA's claim that SAG is trying to poach some of its soap-opera actors.
Meanwhile, SAG is also fighting battles internally. Because a SAG membership card is required for even a bit part in most Hollywood productions, thousands of SAG members are really limo drivers, bartenders, or waiters rather than career actors. One faction within SAG wants to exclude these so-called "middle class actors'' from any strike vote. Another faction says protecting the weakest members is exactly what unions are all about. The feud has turned rather bitter during the past couple of months, with petitions and counter-petitions circulating all over Hollywood.
With all that going on, it's easy to lose sight of the actual issues on the table at the negotiations with studios. The big one, just as it was in the writers' strike that shut down TV production for three months at the beginning of the year, is dividing the pot of revenue from DVDs, on-line screenings and other new digital media. Both the writers and directors have already negotiated settlements with the producers on these issues, which you'd think would provide a good model for SAG -- but Hollywood labor negotiations often have more to do with machismo than good sense.
So there's still a good chance of a strike when SAG's contract with the studios expires at the end of June. The fear is great enough that almost no new movies have started shooting during the past several weeks because studios don't want production suspended by a strike. Some TV producers have gone the opposite route, rushing into production ahead of the usual schedule in order to get some shows completed for the fall season. Bottom line: We may have a second consecutive TV season wrecked by a strike. SAG, which suspended negotiations with the studios on May 6, is scheduled to resume them Wednesday. Stay tuned.