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SAG, AFTRA seek middle-income relief

With a Writers Guild settlement sealed, The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Radio and Television Artists are optimistic about scoring increased compensation for their middle-income members - the core deal point in new contract negotiations with production studios and TV networks.

On Monday, SAG and AFTRA officially rang the opening bell on their talks with The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and broadcasters, to come to terms on a new pact before the current one expires June 30.

As in the WGA talks, a media blackout will limit specifics regarding what SAG and AFTRA are seeking. But John Connolly, chair of AFTRA's bargaining team said the negotiations are "about working people and their families, about paying their mortgages and car payments just like other people in the United States."

These middle-class SAG/AFTRA members make up about half of the actors' guilds combined. They earn between $30,000 and $70,000 - considered blue-collar status to the 2% of the group's star members who typically make over $100,000 a year.

While the entertainment industry has always been a buyer's market, the guilds nevertheless argue that producers can hire a lot of actors for lower rates than they deserve, putting this group "in dire danger of disappearing," said Brian Walton, SAG's chief negotiator. Beyond higher wages, the guilds are expected to ask for more attractive residual payments to actors, for multiple screenings of their work.

Although Walton said the WGA settlement is not a slam dunk against an actor's strike - "the WGA deal is not a cookie cutter for this deal," he says, the general vibe from the actor's unions is they'll be able to agree before the June 30 deadline. "This may not be as exciting as a strike or the possibility of a strike.these negotiations are about problem solving," said Walton. "One or two egos may pop up once and awhile.but we believe the parties will solve some problems here."

The actors unions are also seeking a means to curtail runaway production, where U.S. crews lose out to foreign production outfits that can produce projects for less money. And they are seeking better ways to compensate talent for Internet-based work. - Susanne Ault