Will The Actors Strike Now?

Wait, didn't we just do this? Labor trouble sliced the 2007-08 TV season in half, and now there's a possible new strike before the next season even gets going?

Well, let's not panic just yet. The Screen Actors Guild's contract with Hollywood producers expired on Monday, and movement towards a new contract has been glacial at best. The key issue will look familiar to anyone who recalls the Writers Guild of America strike: better compensation for use of actors' work on DVD and online. In addition, SAG is asking for better benefits and better pay for actors at the lower end of the scale, typical matters that come up when it's time for a new contract.

The good news is that a strike has not been called, and consensus is that there is unlikely to be one -- in large part because memories of the WGA strike are still so fresh. That three-month interruption not only put thousands out of work during lousy economic times, but continued to have an impact even after it ended, due to lower ratings for shows that been on hold, and the virtual cancellation of the traditional pilot season.

But there are reasons to be pessimistic as well. The longer the situation drags on with no contract, the more likely it is that something dramatic will have to happen to bring matters to a close. And unlike the situation at the time of the WGA strike, when the film industry went on with little change and television shows were able to finish up with what completed scripts they had, an actors' strike would grind Hollywood to a halt immediately.

A complication for SAG is the fact that the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) cut its own deal with the producers at the end of May, with a ratification vote from the rank and file coming on July 8. AFTRA is smaller than SAG, but there is a significant overlap between the two groups, and a positive vote on the AFTRA deal from its membership could signal that SAG would have trouble gaining support for any strike of its own. At the very least, the sort of unity we saw at the time of the WGA strike -- unity not only within its own membership, but from across the labor community, including vocal support from SAG itself -- would be in short supply if SAG tried to strike. Dissidents at the time of the writers' strike were few, and more to the point, they were writers, not celebrities. But there are high-profile members of both unions who are stumping in favor of the AFTRA deal, among them Tom Hanks, Alec Baldwin, and Kevin Spacey, along with James Cromwell, a strong pro-union voice for many years. And the Los Angeles chapter of the AFL-CIO has called for ratification as well.

Many television shows entered production early for the fall, in some cases because of work uncompleted from last year, but also as a hedge against a possible strike. The idea would be to have at least a little product in the can for September if the worst-case scenario were to come to pass. This has also worked against the urgency to reach a quick deal, since there's no threat to a second straight television season, at least not yet.

In the short run, SAG and the producers will continue to talk, and everyone will wait for the AFTRA deal's likely ratification. The fact that SAG chief Alan Rosenberg has sought to downplay fears of a strike is a positive sign, but only a handshake will allay fears of another TV season filled with too many reruns and half-baked reality shows rushed into production.