After decades of showbiz independence, the Screen Actors Guild and its sister org AFTRA took their first concrete step toward merger Jan. 25 when the joint boards voted to approve a plan to unite the thesp unions.

The vote was 128 in favor of the merger, eight against and three abstentions.

The boards, meeting together for the first time in both unions’ history, have spent the last three days at the Sheraton Universal in Universal City, Ca., pouring over the tentative marriage proposal that was created by the six-member SAG/AFTRA merger committee.

“It will be a completely new organization with a completely new name. It will be designed to serve the needs of all members,” said Shelby Scott, president of the American Federation of TV & Radio Artists, who is also a member of the merger committee.

On paper, the plan would merge the unions into a “much larger and much stronger” force of more than 110,000 members, said Scott. SAG and AFTRA now each represent about 75,000 members with a fairly substantial crossover membership.

Scott said it would create a “member-driven organization” with a national president, four veepees and a secretary-treasurer. Members would elect a national board of between 100 and 105 directors that would form the highest ruling body for the new labor union. The org, which would be based in New York and Los Angeles, would also have a biannual convention. Currently, AFTRA has a biannual convention, while SAG does not.

“It’ll be a bigger, stronger union,” she said. “We won’t have some of the jurisdictional problems we now have.”

Details on dues structures and on how to consolidate pension and health funds are still unclear and could prove contentious. A constitution will also have to be written and approved by the boards. SAG prexy Barry Gordon described the document as a “framework for an outline” that will allow for the inevitable legal wrangling that will ensue before the proposal can be offered to the membership.

The proposed merger now goes to the individual boards of each union. If approved, it will be subject to a vote at the AFTRA convention in Bal Harbour, Fla., in August. If it passes muster, it will be sent out to the full membership of both unions in a referendum, possibly by the end of the year.

“It’s been a very exciting three days,” said Gordon. “The spirit in the room has been one of camaraderie and unity. I’m just hoping this feeling prevails through the next months when we have an opportunity to finish our work and get a referendum out by the end of the year.”

Gordon has been a strong advocate for combining the unions ever since he joined the merger committee after becoming prexy seven years ago. He announced Jan. 22 that he was stepping down at the end of his term in November. Sources said Gordon ran for his final term only because he wanted to see the merger take place.

“I really believe that it is absolutely essential for members of both our unions so that we can devote our joint resources to the levels of organizing that are necessary to deal with new markets and new technologies on a daily basis,” he said.

The biggest sticking points are still the pension and health funds of both orgs. Each union pension fund has its own set of trustees and oversees substantial assets. Conveniently, SAG and AFTRA have nearly equivalent totals of $1 billion each in their pension funds.

SAG has been reluctant in the last year to join with AFTRA’s health and retirement fund because of a lawsuit filed by several top 1960s recording artists.

The musicians claimed the fund had failed to collect millions of dollars in pension and health contributions for them from major record companies. A U.S. District Court judge later dismissed eight of the 11 counts against the fund and the union, although a trial is still likely.

Gordon said a joint committee of the unions will convene in the next three weeks to try and hammer out agreements on pension and health issues.

A major benefit of the merger, Scott pointed out, may be that health and pension plans might become more financially accessible to the membership.

“For members who sometimes have trouble qualifying for either union’s health or retirement plan, hopefully they’ll have an easier time qualifying,” she said.

Gordon said it was possible the unions could join without merging the pension and health plans, but that it would be “inadvisable.”

Disagreements aside, members of both unions appeared to have worked well together in the confab.

“These talks have been very successful and productive,” said Bruce York, national exec director for AFTRA. “Members of each board have been able to listen and understand problems and reach out and try and bridge those legitimate differences that have kept us apart in the past.”

His counterpart, SAG national exec director Ken Orsatti, reaffirmed the need for a merger after decades of discussions.

“I personally believe that this is a tremendously important step toward merger,” said Ken Orsatti, exec director for SAG. “Merger is essential for the future protection of performers’ and broadcasters’ rights.”

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