The Screen Actors Guild will send strike authorization ballots to more than 100,000 members of the union on Jan. 2, but the dismal economic climate and the pleas of several prominent actors not to strike could make the vote close.
Votes will be tabulated by Jan. 23, and could lead to a strike that would affect all shows covered by SAG — mostly expensive, filmed series like Lost. Taped shows, such as Gary Unmarried, Rules of Engagement, and 90210 are covered by another union, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
That union, which also includes 44,000 people who also belong to SAG, has already accepted a contract similar to the one studios are offering SAG.
Actors who have spoken out against a strike include Danny DeVito, Rhea Perlman, M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell, and former SAG president Richard Masur.
Actors including Rob Morrow, former SAG president Ed Asner, Justine Bateman and Viggo Mortensen appear to be in favor of a strike.
Mad Men star Jon Hamm told The Associated Press last week that he hoped the labor strife would not affect next year's TV season.
"I wish it was not happening. I wish there were sound heads on both sides who were able to discuss this like adults," he said. "If history is any judge, it's not looking good, but we'll see, especially given the financial climate."
Of course, most SAG members aren't scoring the same paychecks as those big names. Working actors — those who make most of their income from film and TV — account for just about 10 percent of SAG members.
The rest earn less than $28,000 a year from acting work. But many work in side jobs that could also be affected by the strike.
Studios have posted their offer online and are asking actors to read it for themselves. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios, estimates actors would lose $2.5 million a day by striking.
"It's now official: SAG members are going to be asked to bail out a failed negotiating strategy by going on strike during one of the worst economic crises in history," the group said in a statement. "We hope that working actors will study our contract offer carefully and come to the conclusion that no strike can solve the problems that have been created by SAG's own failed negotiation strategy."
Plenty of people who make their living from television are also warning about the harm a strike could cause, including agents and service-industry workers.
One estimate placed the economic impact of the three-month writers' strike, which was resolved in February after sidelining the 2007-2008 television season, at $2.5 billion.
SAG leaders need 75 percent of voting members to approve the authorization in order to call a strike. But getting their approval is an unusually hard sell in the worst economy in decades.
When asked, members of SAG usually give their leaders the authority to call a strike. But this time the union and producers find themselves in a fight for actors' hearts and minds.
SAG leaders are barraging members with e-mails, fact sheets, and videos, including one posted on the SAG website on Tuesday in which guild president Alan Rosenberg accused studios of trying "to use the economic uncertainty of 2008 to scare you into making a deal you will regret in 2010 and beyond."
The guild is also holding meetings intended to demonstrate widespread support for striking. An estimated 500 people attended a three-hour informational meeting in Los Angeles this week.
SAG leaders say the contract producers are offering doesn't adequately pay actors for videos that are streamed online. They also say actors should earn more from DVD sales, and deserve pay and control over product placements in shows and movies.