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2ND UPDATE (Writethru): The balance of power vis-a-vis Hollywood employer-labor relations shifted sizeably today. And suddenly SAG finds itself with tremendous contract leverage and Big Media not so much.

The Screen Actors Guild announced this afternoon that a postcard poll of its members shows 87.27% support for its negotiating team continuing to bargain for a better contract with the Big Media cartel’s AMPTP and refusing to accept the AMPTP’s June 30 offer. This now becomes a huge problem for the Hollywood CEOs whose labor lawyers have been arguing for months that SAG’s leaders pressing for richer New Media terms were acting against the wishes of the membership. Because now it’s clear that the AMPTP was only deluding itself that there was some groundswell of SAG actors who would approve the lower-cost AFTRA-like version of the contract currently on the negotiating table if only it were offered to them. So SAG called the employers’ bluff and postcard polled its members. It doesn’t matter that the AMPTP today complained about the way the poll was conducted. Talk about sour grapes. Because the 10% responses from postcards sent to all eligible SAG members is objectively considered large for that kind of sampling (and only 15% to 25% of the membership vote in the elections themselves). Basically, the employers have been hoisted on their own petard.

Look, the AMPTP’s divide-and-conquer strategy almost worked. It did manage for months to take the biggest, strongest and (to the employers) scariest Hollywood guild and almost reduce this proud pedigree to a cowering cur. But that was then, and this is now.

Oh, and did I mention that a giant loser in all this is the AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon who now looks like just a blowhard for boasting about what a great deal she got her actor members. She can spin all she wants, but here’s proof that SAG members want better terms than the low-cost compliant pact she accepted from the AMPTP.

Today’s pro-leadership development is a wake-up call for the intransigent but disengaged moguls to either send the AMPTP formally back to the bargaining table with a more conciliatory attitude (because the talks between both sides have never stopped, and I have proof…), or to take over the negotiations themselves like they did to end the writers strike. (“If they don’t realize that, then they really do have their head in the sand,” one SAG leader told me this afternoon. “We wanted to use this tool to make sure the CEOs get re-engaged, roll up their sleeves, and work with us to get the heavy lifting done.”)

Not even the results of tomorrow’s election to SAG’s national board can now change the direction of the negotiations much if at all: they’re irrelevant. Because the big actors guild membership is more unified over getting a better contract than anyone thought.

Remember, the postcard poll had nothing to do with asking for a strike authorization vote which isn’t being contemplated now. Also remember that if SAG can negotiate for itself a better New Media contract than either the WGA or DGA pacts, then those guilds would benefit thanks to the favored nations verbal agreement made by News Corp No. 2 Peter Chernin.

What a big day in guild relations vs the Big Media cartel this is!

Here is SAG’s official announcement, followed by the AMPTP’s churlish response:

Los Angeles, September 17, 2008 – The Screen Actors Guild National Negotiating Committee met today and was given the results of the SAG mail-in poll by National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator, Doug Allen.

87.27% of the10,298 SAG members who responded to the poll said the union should continue bargaining in an effort to achieve a fair contract.  12.73% of those who responded said they would accept the terms presented in the AMPTP’s June 30th offer to SAG.

Postcards were mailed to 103,630 paid-up SAG members on August 28 with a return deadline of September 15, with a 9.94% return.  Postcard return statistics matched almost exactly the geographic distribution of SAG members, with 56.07% of the responses from Hollywood, 20.83% from NY, and  23.10% from regional branch members.

The results of the poll indicate that members agree with the actions passed by SAG’s national board in July and August:

July 26, 2008: “It is a core principle of Screen Actors Guild— That no non-union work shall be authorized to be done under any SAG agreement and; That all work done under a Screen Actors Guild contract, regardless of budget level, shall receive fair compensation when reused.“

August 21, 2008 “To support the negotiating team to get the very best contract possible for our membership.”

Screen Actors Guild President Alan Rosenberg stated, “I am encouraged to see that members-at-large agree with the strategy of the national board and their national negotiating committee. This membership poll provides clear insight and direction concerning how actors feel about their futures. Clearly they expect Screen Actors Guild to protect them from exploitation in new media, and to preserve longstanding principles and contract provisions.”

National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Doug Allen commented, “Our objective was to take the pulse of our members and I am pleased that the response reflects the resolve we have seen from SAG members around the country throughout this negotiating process.  The AMPTP suggested we send their June 30 offer to our members to ratify. These poll results indicate that was wishful thinking on their part. We will now urge the AMPTP to roll up their sleeves and to put in the hard work required to bargain a fair, equitable agreement as soon as possible.”

The AMPTP issued this statement in reaction:

September 17, 2008 — The mass postcard mailing by SAG negotiators was a farce. The questions were devised to give SAG negotiators only the answer they wanted to hear. The materials accompanying the postcard were hopelessly one-sided. SAG member votes were recorded by name, exposing those who opposed SAG negotiators to possible retribution. And some SAG members reportedly received multiple ballots. In short, this mass postcard mailing was another exercise in futility by SAG’s negotiators, and the results are meaningless. We have made a fair offer, with significant gains in salary and new media. That offer remains on the table, for the time being, despite steadily deteriorating economic conditions. In the meantime, we and all of the other industry guilds have gone back to work, and SAG members continue to miss out on the benefits of a new contract.