If you’re a regular reader here at TechRaptor, you’ll know that we’ve been following the negotiations between SAG-AFTRA and the legal team representing various video game employers, Barnes and Thornburg LLP, with interest. We reported last week that a picket was planned to take place outside EA’s offices on Monday, 24th October. The picket happened as planned and SAG-AFTRA reported that more than 250 of their members turned out to join them. In the interest of bringing you an informed and balanced run-down of where both parties currently stand on the issue and the result of the picket, we reached out to both SAG-AFTRA and Barnes and Thornburg to provide comment. Both sides have kindly responded and we’re bringing you a breakdown of the key points from both statements below.
The statements from both sides of the negotiations pulled no punches and made it clear that there is still some significant division between performers and employers. It is worth noting here that Barnes and Thornburg’s statement was released first, and many of the points raised by SAG-AFTRA’s counter statement directly refer to this release. Scott J. Witlin on behalf of the video game employers began by saying:
These proposals exchanged across the table prove the Companies and SAG-AFTRA have largely agreed on the significant issues before us except for the label we have placed on the ‘Additional Compensation,’ which would be paid above and beyond our proposed 9% pay increase. The documents also demonstrate that the Companies value performers and reached agreement with the Union on the issue of vocal stress.
But representatives at SAG-AFTRA see it differently. Regarding the issue of additional compensation, their negotiating committee responded:
Their attempt to characterize their offer to make “additional compensation” payments at the time of session as equivalent to our “contingent compensation” proposal is disingenuous and misleading. These employers know full well that our issue is the creation of secondary payments that allow our members to share in the success of the most successful games. The employers’ offer purposely does not do that.
Barnes and Thornburg were keen to stress that they feel their final offer was “very close” the SAG-AFTRA’s demands in public statement, they released information and charts showing where they felt that had reasonably responded to the union’s demands. The full list ran as follows:
9 Percent Wage Hike
The Companies exceeded the Union’s request for a 3% raise over each of the next three years by Companies offering a 9 percent up-front increase, but only if a new agreement is ratified by December 1st.
In the Companies’ final proposal, the Companies increased the maximum amount of Additional Compensation to match the amount of the Union’s request for a ‘contingent’ compensation buy out of up to $950. While the Companies have held to their position that there will be no ‘contingent’ compensation, the Companies have proposed a schedule of “Additional Compensation” that largely matches SAG-AFTRA’s last demand, including the total aggregated figure and the number of sessions necessary to earn that amount. This offer, too, must be ratified by December 1 to become effective.
Pension and Health Contributions
The Companies agreed to the Union’s request for a 0.5% increase and have agreed in principal regarding which of the benefit plans the money should be directed to.
Vocal Stress Issues
After the Union rejected the Companies’ proposals concerning modifying voice over sessions to mitigate any risk of vocal stress, the parties agreed on forming a joint cooperative committee to study vocal stress issues.
The expired Interactive Media Agreement between the Companies and SAG-AFTRA already provides for a stunt coordinator to be on site for sessions that include stunts. While SAG-AFTRA made no new proposals in this area, it did seek further clarification about the use of stunt coordinators and both sides agreed to continue those discussions through the cooperative committee during the term of the new agreement.
The Union’s proposal requested additional up front information when booking performers in video games to know more information (game title name, new role or a reprise of a previous role). The Companies enhanced their proposal to agree to provide the code name of the project and whether the performer will be asked to reprise a previous role. While SAG-AFTRA contends that the video game industry is the only industry not to require an employer to reveal the name of the project on which a performer is working, SAG-AFTRA has no such requirement in Television, Theatrical Motion Pictures or Animation agreements.
Except for the label on the Companies’ ‘Additional Compensation’ proposal, there are no significant material differences between the Companies’ final proposal and the Union’s last proposal. The wages, additional compensation, pension and health contributions, vocal stress, stunt coordination, and transparency proposals are almost identical.
The negotiating team at SAG-AFTRA, however, see this list as unrepresentative of why their strike continues as planned. They say in the opening of their statement that: “Despite what the video game employers restated today, SAG-AFTRA has not received a fair offer that would resolve our negotiations. The union remains committed to reaching an equitable solution while employers are the ones who continue to be intractable in their bargaining.” Which is clearly at odds with what the press releases from Barnes and Thornburg have stated. The union attempt to further clarify their position in the body of the statement:
The video game companies claim they “did everything in their power” to reach an agreement with us. In fact, we accepted their offer of an upfront payment option in order to avoid triggering any secondary payments. This would have allowed them to preserve their existing compensation practices.
We simply asked to include secondary payments as an option in the agreement. This would allow other producers to avoid those upfront costs by agreeing to share their prosperity on the back end — if their game was successful. The game companies we are negotiating with adamantly refused to allow such an option to exist in the contract. That is why we find ourselves at such an impasse.
Both sides seem entrenched in their respective positions, both are insisting that they are the ones trying to make an agreement work – as you might expect in a high-profile negotiation. Separately, both sides have indicated they are open to resuming negotiations if the other side is willing to make concessions. The statement and separate comments from Scott J. Witlin, made directly to our writer here at TechRaptor, are keen to point out that SAG-AFTRA did not put the final offer from negotiators to a vote of their members. When asked if they [Barnes and Thornburg] felt that their final offer made enough progress toward the union’s demand to warrant this, he replied:
SAG-AFTRA took its strike vote a year ago and even then had only disclosed to the membership through its website what our initial proposals were back in February, 2015. When we read what SAG-AFTRA is saying and what the membership is saying, it is clear that the parties bargaining positions are not being heard by the public at large.
But SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee vehemently disagrees with this statement, saying:
We know where our members stand, and we will put a deal in front of the SAG-AFTRA membership when we have an agreement our committee can recommend.
They also point out in their public statement after the picket that an overwhelming 96.5% of their membership initially voted in favor of the strike. They clearly believe their member’s position remains the same, at least for the moment, when asked how long they would stay out [on strike] for Union president Gabrielle Carteris said: “We are willing to stay out as long as it takes – not only the performers but the union itself.”
The main point of contention, for now, seems to be that while the representatives of the video game employers see the difference between negotiating positions as one of semantics, SAG-AFTRA and it’s members see it as a far deeper and more serious division. They have even suggested that the employers’ attitude toward their differences is ‘dismissive’. Nothing typifies this more than both sides’ closing statements, which we reproduce here in the order they were released. First, Barnes and Thornburg’s Scott J. Witlin:
“The Union negotiating committee’s continued public positioning of workplace safety as a rationale for striking these pro-Union Companies is disingenuous and paternalistic,” Witlin said. “SAG-AFTRA should allow its affected members to vote on the Companies’ final proposal and determine for themselves whether the semantic difference that does exist between “additional compensation” and “residual” is worth the costs of a strike.
And here, the response of SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee:
What the employers dismissively characterize as a strike over “terminology” is actually a strike over the respect and compensation that professional performers deserve. Secondary payments are what enable professional performers to survive between jobs and reflect the respect they earn for contributing their creativity, talent, voices and likenesses to the games they help bring to life.
Now, management continues to ignore the SAG-AFTRA members who lend their voices to the industry’s greatest games.
For now, at least, it appears neither side is any closer to reaching an agreement – or even getting back to the table – and strike action is set to continue indefinitely in the meantime.
For more information on affected employers, the details of the negotiation, or to see events as they happened please check our previous articles on the picket announcement, the strike announcement, and the vote of SAG-AFTRA members.
We know that many of our readers feel strongly about this issue, and we encourage you to share your thoughts with us in the comments below. Does anything that has been said by either side change your position on the debate?