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Amid a writers strike, contract between actors' union and major studios expires

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

SAG-AFTRA is Hollywood's biggest union. Their contract expired at midnight. And their negotiators are recommending they go on strike. Now, the SAG-AFTRA national board will meet later this morning to vote on it. If the actors strike, they'll join the writers' union on the picket line and showbiz may end up with its first double strike in more than 60 years. Federal mediators joined the talks yesterday. Now, for more on the mediation process, here's Joshua Flax. He's the deputy director for policy and strategy at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Joshua, are federal mediators brought in only when talks have completely broken down?

JOSHUA FLAX: Good morning and thank you for having me. Federal mediators can be brought in at any point in the process when a business or an enterprise and their labor union feel that the quality of their negotiations has gone down and that the parties need kind of some extra help at the negotiating table, bearing in mind that those mediators are not making any specific decisions for the parties. They're like an extra pair of hands at the negotiating table.

MARTÍNEZ: Would you rather to be brought in earlier than later, though?

FLAX: It really depends on the situation and when the parties are ready. I suppose, generically speaking, earlier can be more helpful. But sometimes the lead negotiators on both parties actually think that they're making more progress. And they want to keep trying to reach agreement without having a third-party helper in the room. And so often, our mediators do hear from the parties to a collective bargaining agreement kind of at the last minute. Could be within the last few days of the negotiation process where the lead negotiators suddenly realize that the issues are a bit of a bridge too far at that moment, and it would be helpful to have the mediator in there.

MARTÍNEZ: And in those last-minute situations, is it usually one little thing that's holding things up? Or are sides way, way apart?

FLAX: Oh, that's a great question. It could be either. It could be that there's some important economic piece of the collective bargaining agreement, such as wages or health care, that are keeping the parties apart. And that's the only thing that they still have to negotiate. Or it could be a range of issues about how that enterprise or how that industry operates where there are still many things left to talk about, and for whatever reason, the quality of those collective bargaining negotiations had degraded over time, to the point where the parties were unable to make significant progress.

MARTÍNEZ: Is a mediator's job a little more difficult when, say, in this situation - when it comes to actors and studios? You've got people that are very famous, very wealthy and very accustomed to getting what they want when they want it.

FLAX: And the question?

MARTÍNEZ: How different is it when you've got high-profile people that you're dealing with?

FLAX: (Laughter) That's an excellent question. I mean, it - remember that, you know, in something like the - you know, I can't comment on any specific set of negotiations.

MARTÍNEZ: Sure.

FLAX: But for an industry, you know, such as entertainment - our mediators have also been heavily involved in professional sports collective bargaining negotiations over many decades. In industries like that, you know, there's a range of members of the bargaining unit. There's high-earner, very well-known. And then there's low-earner kind of journeymen, journeywomen workers at the bottom end. And, you know, for our mediators, their focus is on helping the parties reach agreement at the collective bargaining table irrespective of who they are. We believe that every American business and labor union that works for that business deserves the same level of service.

MARTÍNEZ: And what can mediators do to get negotiations started again once they've stopped?

FLAX: Some of the mediation work is done in the room in what we call a joint session with both parties there. Very often when the negotiations are stuck, the mediators will separate the parties into a private caucus. And they'll do a lot of reality testing with both parties, but they'll do it privately. They'll check on their proposals. They'll ask if the proposals have been prioritized. And they'll make some process moves, sometimes even using what mediators call shuttle diplomacy, going between the private caucuses, to help the parties get those negotiations back on track.

MARTÍNEZ: Joshua Flax is the deputy director for policy and strategy at the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service. Joshua, thanks.

FLAX: Thanks for having me.

MARTÍNEZ: And a quick note for transparency. Many of us here at NPR are members of SAG-AFTRA. But broadcast journalists are under a different contract, meaning that we would not be expected to strike. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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