New York takes on LA as actors' strike looms

A-listers square up over threat of industrial action
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One side aligns with stars such as Mel Gibson, Holly Hunter and thousands of colleagues from LA. The other with Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons and a group of angry renegades known as the "New York faction". Brad Pitt, for the time being, is sitting on the fence.

A proposed actors' strike that would shut down film and TV production across the US has started a civil war between East and West Coast members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). The dispute taps time-honoured rivalries between the cities that provide America's entertainment industry with its principal artistic hubs.

The latest kerfuffle involves a vote over whether the SAG's 120,000 members should walk out in protest at stalled contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP). The SAG's LA-based leadership, which has been leading the talks, is urging supporters to vote in favour of industrial action. Their counterparts at the SAG's New York branch, however, are vehemently opposed. They say it would cripple the industry and cause hardship.

Tempers spilled over last week when the union's president, Alan Rosenberg, travelled from Los Angeles to address members in New York. He spent much of the evening being shouted down, and was repeatedly called "inept" and a "liar". Speaking afterwards, 30 Rock star Alec Baldwin, a hardline anti-strike member from the New York faction, called for Mr Rosenberg and his colleagues to resign: "They have failed as negotiators."

Union rules require 75 per cent of members to support strike action in the anonymous ballot; the result will be announced on 23 January, two days before the SAG's annual awards. On paper, it looks tight. Roughly 60 per cent of members belong to the Hollywood branch, 25 per cent to New York, and the remaining 15 per cent to regional branches. Both East and West Coast factions have been courting celebrity endorsements. An anti-strike petition written by New York member Rhea Perlman, wife of Danny DeVito, has been signed by roughly 150 A-listers, including Glenn Close, Tobey Maguire, Charlize Theron, and Morgan Freeman. "We support our union and we support the issues we're fighting for, but we do not believe now is the time to be putting people out of work," it said. The LA-based SAG leadership has a pro-strike declaration signed by 2,300 "ordinary" members including Matthew Modine, Nancy Sinatra and Martin Sheen, and plans a $100,000 advertising campaign.

The dispute reflects wider tensions. Historically, most TV shows and films were made in California. But increasing numbers are migrating to other states to secure tax breaks. Many of the hottest TV shows, including 30 Rock and Mad Men, are now filmed in New York. The US version of Life on Mars was originally set in Los Angeles but moved to the Big Apple to cut costs.

If the dispute does lead to strike action, many TV networks have hinted that they may force actors to join a smaller rival union.