A proposal to merge the industry’s two largest performers unions cleared another historic milestone over the weekend, as the board of the Screen Actors Guild approved a plan for uniting with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

The board voted 72 to 23, with two abstentions, to approve the merger plan, a hefty margin even as several prominent members have started to voice their opposition or misgivings. One of the concerns is over a proposed dues increase with the merger. But SAG officials over the weekend cautioned of deficits in the years ahead, making a fee hike necessary whether the unions are merged or not.

The merger vote on Saturday is just one step in the process. The AFTRA board will consider the merger plan next month. Then SAG’s board will decide in mid-June whether to send the merger to the membership in a referendum. AFTRA will take up the merger in late July, when the union will decide at its national convention whether to send the plan out to a vote.

The plan calls for uniting SAG with AFTRA into one organization of 120,000 performers, with a new governing structure that includes a national president, secretary-treasurer and four national VPs with 30 locals.

Losing clout?

In the deliberations on Saturday, some SAG board members expressed concerns the actors would lose clout in a union that will also include singers, puppeteers, announcers, dancers and newscasters, and that it would be easier for new performers to qualify to get into the new union. Supporters, however, note that actors make up the majority of SAG and AFTRA, and would continue to do so in the merged union.

Others also had reservations about the dues increase, although dues could go down for some members because they hold cards in both unions. Under the merger plan, minimum dues will be increased from $85 to $200. (Performers also are charged a percentage equal to their previous year’s earnings.)

Need for hike

But SAG president Richard Masur noted that it has been almost a decade since the dues were increased, and it is likely that the union would need to increase the fees, anyway. And as SAG increases its staff this year – including a dozen new business representatives in Los Angeles alone, as well as new offices in Wilmington, N.C., Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas and Puerto Rico – the union also faces red ink.

SAG’s $30 million budget for the current fiscal year, which ends on Aug. 31, projects a deficit of around $900,000, although that figure could vary depending on expenses and the collection of initiation fees from new members, according to SAG’s national executive director Ken Orsatti. That can be made up for by reserves, including a surplus of more than $1 million last year. But the fear is that in the coming years’ reserves would drop below acceptable levels without a dues increase, Masur said.

Meanwhile, at SAG’s membership meeting on Sunday, actor and board member Cliff Robertson gave a speech deploring the lack of stars who are involved in the guild, a contrast to the days when stars such as James Cagney and Gene Kelly could be counted on to participate in its governance.

“We need their strength, we need their support, we need their visibility, not to just receive some award and come down from their Moroccan mansions,” he said.

“To be considered a star has many perks in our society, but with these perks, does an immunization against responsibility exist? Does it apply with one’s own union, the union that does not shirk from its responsibility to its stars?”

He capped off the speech with what he called a “Cliff Robertson Rap”:

Mr. Movie Star, up in the sky so far, up in the hill so far, don’t you hear us down below? Open up your electric gate, come on down and participate.

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