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Actors Union Sets January Strike Vote

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Nominations came out this morning for the Golden Globe Awards. The news is good for television series like "30 Rock," "Entourage," and "The Office." Other nominations went to movies like "Frost/Nixon" and "Slumdog Millionaire," not to mention actors like Meryl Streep and Angelina Jolie. The Golden Globes are seen as an indicator of which films, actors, and directors are most likely to do well in the Oscars.

Right now, though, people are looking at an indication of something else. The possibility of a strike overshadows today's announcements. It's not a writers' strike like last year. This time the biggest actors union is threatening to strike. The Screen Actors Guild says it will mail out strike authorization ballots in the coming weeks. But as NPR's Kim Masters reports, many in Hollywood feel it's not a good time to be thinking of a walkout.

KIM MASTERS: It's not just that the economy has tanked, but the entertainment industry has hardly recovered from that bruising writers' strike that ended last February. It certainly seems counterintuitive to talk about a strike right now.

Mr. ALAN ROSENBERG: (President, Screen Actors Guild): Well, I know it does, you know. And I keep remembering that this union was founded in 1937 during one of the worst years of the Great Depression.

MASTERS: That's Alan Rosenberg, president of the Screen Actors Guild, which has been in fruitless negotiations with the studios for months.

Mr. ROSENBERG: I believe if they try and use the financial crisis and everybody's anxiety about the Writers Guild strike as a weapon to change the way we do business in a fundamental way, that will impact actors negatively for decades to come.

MASTERS: As it was with the writers union, a key issue in SAG's dispute with the studios is compensation for work done for the Internet. There isn't a lot of money in that now, Rosenberg acknowledges, but...

Mr. ROSENBERG: We're trying to make sure if it explodes for our employers, it becomes incredibly successful for them over the next three years, that we participate in some way.

MASTERS: Rosenberg still remembers when the Hollywood unions didn't press for a bigger piece of DVD revenue because the technology was still new. Then DVDs took off, and SAG members feel they never got the studios to make a fair deal. SAG feels that the time to press for a piece of the Internet pie is now, but the studios are standing firm.

Mr. JESSE HIESTAND (Spokesman, Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers): The same basic terms in new media that have been offered to SAG have already been accepted by every other union and guild in the industry.

MASTERS: That's studio spokesman Jesse Hiestand. And it's true, the studio's proposed deal was accepted by the Writers Guild, the Directors Guild, and the other actors union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. But Rosenberg observes that those other unions are far smaller than SAG, which has more than 120,000 members. SAG is expected to mail strike authorization ballots soon after Christmas. The union needs 75 percent of the vote, and it's not clear that will happen at a time like this.

Mr. JONATHAN HANDEL (Attorney): It's the worst economy since the invention of talking pictures.

MASTERS: Jonathan Handel is an attorney who monitors labor issues in Hollywood.

Mr. HANDEL: On the other hand, a lot of SAG members don't work. Two-thirds of the union doesn't. And so it's really no skin off their noses if the union, in fact, were to move towards a strike.

MASTERS: A strike authorization would not automatically trigger a walkout. But some guild members think that would be inevitable, and they're urging actors to vote against the authorization. That includes a number of A-list stars, such as Tom Hanks and George Clooney. Should the actors back a strike, Handel thinks SAG would try to time it to disrupt the Academy Awards on February 22. The public wouldn't notice any impact on movies for months to come.

Television was disrupted fairly quickly during the writers' strike, but this time the studios have their seasons well under way. And they can create new shows by making a deal with the other actors' union, AFTRA, which incidentally represents journalists at NPR. Kim Masters, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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