HOLLYWOOD -- Heightening fears of an actors' strike this summer, one of Hollywood's two major performers unions voted Saturday to break off its 27-year joint bargaining relationship with the Screen Actors Guild, leaving each to negotiate separate new contracts with the major studios.
The 11th-hour move by the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is the latest thunderclap in Hollywood's winter of discontent, which has seen the television industry upended by a 100-day strike by screenwriters.
It injects a new element of uncertainty in the television and movie industry by raising the possibility of an actors' walkout this summer, just as some shows are returning to the air after a three-month absence and the movie industry is trying to get back on its feet.
In this year's round of contract talks, Hollywood's talent guilds, which represent writers, directors and actors, have pushed to center stage the issue of how their members are paid in the digital era. Now that directors and writers have reached new three-year contracts with the studios, the industry had hoped the actors could peacefully negotiate a new deal before their contract expires on June 30.
But SAG and AFTRA, the two unions that represent actors, have been at loggerheads over a variety of issues, including each union's contract goals and jurisdiction claims over TV shows. Nonetheless, the two unions have usually been able to set aside their differences long enough to negotiate together on behalf of their members.
Not this time.
AFTRA's move to break off from SAG seemed to be timed for maximum impact, especially given that the two unions had unanimously approved joint proposals for a new film and prime-time television contract that were expected to be presented to the studios in the coming weeks.
The current SAG leadership was elected on a platform to "get tough" in negotiations with the studios after a contingent of the 120,000 members, dominated by the Guild's militant Hollywood faction, thought the previous leadership was too accommodating. AFTRA, which has 70,000 members, is regarded by many as more moderate of the two unions.
Actors in SAG work in film, television and commercials. AFTRA, which has its roots in radio, represents local TV anchors, disc jockeys and some recording artists. It also has jurisdiction over game and talk shows and the booming genre of reality TV, including Dancing with the Stars, and is aggressively signing up the casts of cable series, such as FX's Rescue Me.
Roberta Reardon, president of AFTRA, in explaining the decision to negotiate independently, accused SAG of trying to wrest jurisdiction of the soap opera The Bold and the Beautiful away from AFTRA as an example of the latest battle over turf.
The studios had invited the unions to begin joint negotiations as early as this week and were awaiting a response from SAG and AFTRA to set a timeline, which they had hoped to announce Saturday.
But, before the two unions had a chance to sign off on the proposals, AFTRA's board, which met separately Saturday morning, voted to terminate their joint bargaining relationship and negotiate the prime-time contract separately.
SAG's leadership, in a separate meeting, was stunned by AFTRA's decision and failed in its attempts to get its sister union to reconsider its decision.
"It's really tragic," said SAG president Alan Rosenberg. "It's tough enough to compete with the [the Hollywood studios] and try to get fair wages and working conditions for actors. Now we have to compete against our own union. ... What they did today was turn their back on every actor in America."
Claudia Eller writes for the Los Angeles Times.