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SAG calls off the wedding

Merger with AFTRA narrowly defeated

By a margin of only 1,280 votes, SAG members Tuesday spurned a proposed combination with AFTRA following an acrimonious campaign that underscored deep divisions among thesps.

The narrow loss — just 2% short of the required 60% — represents a repudiation by SAG members of their leaders, who have devoted their energy this year to pushing the merger, and highlights the leaders’ clear-cut inability to accurately gauge the will of rank-and-file thesps.

“Consolidation has been defeated by a minority of the members of SAG,” admitted SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert, who had campaigned avidly for the deal. “I’m somewhat stunned.”

The “no” vote also represents the second consecutive defeat on a key issue championed by SAG staff and Gilbert, who refused to indicate whether she will seek re-election this summer. SAG members also spurned a revamp of the master franchise agreement for talent agents last year.

Attempting to put the best face on the results, Gilbert noted that the vote represented a record turnout of 54% of eligible SAG members voting with a clear majority of voters approving the proposal. Asked why 42% voted against the deal, Gilbert said, “I can’t fathom that.”

But AFTRA prexy John Connolly, whose union easily approved the combo by a 76-24 margin, blamed the opposition’s tactics for the defeat. “Fear is a powerful motivator in an election,” he said. “They used everything they could to instill fear.”

The loss clearly weakens the bargaining position for SAG and AFTRA leaders at the fast-approaching negotiations for their commercials contract and their film-TV agreement with producers. It also portends a jurisdictional brawl between SAG and AFTRA over TV shows shot on digital.

The results, announced at the Radisson Wilshire Plaza Hotel in Hollywood at 10:15 p.m. Tuesday with over 100 union staff and members in attendance also left opponents stunned but happy. “I am so thrilled,” said board member Valerie Harper. “The members really came through.”

Eugene Boggs, who has run for president three times, echoed that assessment, saying, “I’m astounded at the result because there was so much campaigning by staff for it. It’s a real triumph for union democracy and grass roots campaigning.”

The merger proposal received 33,626 yes votes and 24,550 no votes from SAG voters — in other words, 58% in the affirmative but 2% shy of the 60% requirement; AFTRA voters supported the proposal with 27,553 yes votes and 8,757 no votes, a 76% majority in favor of the merger.

SAG and AFTRA, which have been trying to merge for some 60 years, sent out 133,174 ballots including 37,733 to dual cardholders, who were able to vote in both tallies, 70,082 to SAG-only members and 25,359 to AFTRA-only members.

If voters had approved, a new Alliance of Intl. Media Artists would have been formed with affiliates for actors, broadcasters and recording artists.

Proponents, led by Gilbert, claimed that combining SAG and AFTRA would lead to greater bargaining clout and operating efficiencies along with resolving jurisdictional disputes. The merger backers received extensive help from the AFL-CIO, which strongly favors combining unions that have similar jurisdictions.

But opponents were able to persuade voters that SAG would be a shell under the new structure; that the new org would be less responsive to the unique needs of actors; and that plans to subsequently merge the SAG and AFTRA health plans would be damaging to SAG participants.

The vote was also a replay of a 1999 referendum when only 46% of SAG voters endorsed a similar merger proposal.

Opponents raised similar concerns to those voiced then, portraying SAG leaders as being out of touch with rank-and-file thesps.

The pro- and con- merger campaigns bubbled over with emotional charges and countercharges, fueled by the refusal of SAG’s national board to send out a “minority report” in its official communication with SAG members.

The panel was not required to do so since less than 25% of the board voted against the deal, but the refusal energized opponents.

A key sticking point among opponents centered on the move by the SAG and AFTRA boards to ask trustees of the unions’ health and pension plans — operated independently, with half the reps from industry and the rest from the unions — to lay the groundwork for merging the two plans.

Management trustees of the SAG health plan say that merging with the AFTRA plan is not in the best interests of the SAG participants — a declaration that was labeled by merger proponents as meddling in union politics, prompting a sharp denial by those trustees.

SAG’s refusal to disclose the trustee findings and a consultant’s negative report on merging the health plans prompted a legal effort to block the voting tabulation.

In an indication of strong anti-merger sentiment, opponent Scott Wilson sought a temporary restraining order Monday against SAG in federal court but U.S. District Court Judge James Otero turned him down, ruling the motion had not been filed on a timely basis.

With the merger voted down, SAG will now hold its own national election with petitions due July 24, ballots mailed Aug. 26 and results announced Sept. 23.

Although no candidates have yet declared to succeed Gilbert, that contest promises to be contentious in the wake of the bitter merger campaign and last year’s raucous re-run election in which Gilbert won over Valerie Harper. (A previous election was thrown out due to rule violations by SAG staff and by the company handling the balloting.)

SAG and AFTRA will also face a continued problem in presenting a unified face at the bargaining table with fears already emerging that AFTRA could try to negotiate a separate deal at lower rates.

The orgs are heading into joint bargaining in early September on the commercials pact, expiring Oct. 29; their film-TV contract is up in July 2004.

During the campaign, there was so much hostility that no official debates were ever held.

Opponents were particularly irked over the use of SAG funds to pay for mailings, telephone polls on the SAG phone lines and pro-merger materials mailed in envelopes containing residual checks and the ballots.

The yes side had warned that actors would be forced to accept lower AFTRA rates on TV shows shot on digital; opponents of the merger asserted that the jurisdictional dispute over such shows had been artificially manufactured as a pretext by union staffs to drive the merger campaign.

They noted that AFTRA has claimed it lacks the resources to organize hundreds of non-union cable shows but chose to battle SAG in a disputed arena at the same time.

The battles reflect SAG’s long-running internal fights pitting those who favor an activist approach, led by SAG treasurer Kent McCord, against those like Gilbert who advocate pragmatism and avoiding confrontation.

McCord has been particularly peeved over Pisano’s decision to spend an estimated $1.75 million on the merger along with what he characterizes as lack of access to SAG financial info.

“I thank God the members saw through the sales job to give away this union,” he told Daily Variety. “And I believe the members deserve a full accounting of every penny that ‘s been spent.”

SAG’s hostilities have been heightened by a disputed internal election in 1998, the election of William Daniels as prexy in 1999 and the handling of the six-month strike against advertisers in 2000.

The defeat means SAG and AFTRA could be hit hard financially since both are already operating in the red with yearly deficits in excess of $2 million. That means SAG and AFTRA would have to cut costs further, with AFTRA probably forced to close branches.

Other potential fallout could include a split into SAG East in New York and SAG West in Hollywood.

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