Union merger advances

Constitutions OK'd for new org, affils

SAG and AFTRA have moved a step closer to merging, establishing a governing structure for a new performers union with ambitious growth plans.

The orgs’ merger committee OK’d constitutions for each of the three affiliates and the proposed new Alliance of Intl. Media Artists, with 135,000 members. Final steps to merger will come on Saturday and Sunday with a joint national board meeting, followed by voting by both memberships in June.

Key selling point in the voting will be the growing need for establishing power through consolidation at a time of a massive vertical integration by entertainment mega-congloms. It’s likely that the long-term strategy, backed by the AFL-CIO, will be to turn AIMA into a far larger performers union through future mergers with such orgs as Actors Equity and the American Federation of Musicians.

“I don’t see how SAG and AFTRA can stop with this step because of the growing power of their employers,” said Bill Boarman, president of the printing, publishing and media workers sector of the Communications Workers of America, in an interview with Daily Variety. “All the performers should be in a single union in order to survive. That’s where all this is leading.”

CWA execs have been actively involved over the past year in advising SAG and AFTRA leaders on strategic approaches to the merger.

Boarman said much of the informal guidance to SAG and AFTRA has focused on dealing with the growing power of congloms. “If you want to take on Walt Disney Co. and News Corp., you are going to have to be together,” he added.

Boarman also endorsed the recent selection of the Alliance of Intl. Media Artists as the name for the proposed umbrella union as general enough to allow for significant future expansion. “It’s a name that will enable the new organization to absorb other performer unions without changing its name,” he added.

CWA example to others

SAG and AFTRA have singled out CWA, which has about 650,000 members, as a model in their recent presentation to members. Though CWA is best known as a telecommunications union, Boarman noted, its history since the mid-’80s includes the absorption of ITU (repping printers), NABET (broadcast technicians) and TNG (the Newspaper Guild, repping newspaper reporters), and it has recently held merger talks with flight attendant reps.

“We believe you are going to have to have at least 800,000 members in a union to survive,” he added.

Newspaper Guild president Linda Foley said TNG leadership reached a similar conclusion when it began seeking merger partners in the early 1990s before settling on CWA. “We were able to maintain our identity within the CWA, and it went very smoothly,” she recalled.

And the components of the merged unions have discovered few philosophical differences since the basic task for many CWA members involves using a desktop computer. “We’ve found we have more in common than we thought due to the technological changes in the workplace,” he added.

SAG and AFTRA have been advised since last year by the AFL-CIO’s Dept. of Professional Employees, of which Foley is secretary-treasurer. According to Foley, these are the key points stressed recently by DPE in its push for merging AFL-CIO member unions:

  • Ongoing globalization of mega-corporations leads to moving operations to low-wage, low-cost parts of the world.

  • Anti-labor policies of the Bush Administration.

  • Erosion of employee rights.

  • Soaring health-care costs for employees.

One recent indication that coordinated union action by showbiz guilds can be effective, Foley noted, has come from the significant level of opposition to proposed relaxation of FCC limits on media ownership. “Nobody paid a lot of attention to the ownership issues until the entertainment unions got involved,” she asserted.

Campaign in works

Though some opposition to the SAG-AFTRA merger has emerged in the form of the Save SAG organization, the group has not yet engaged in a significant level of activity. Merger backers, who have been extensively advised by the AFL-CIO’s DPE, have geared up for a major campaign push to SAG and AFTRA members, with SAG having allocated $1.6 million for the effort.

Slogans employed thus far are “Consolidation is strength” and “Partnership for power.”

Actors’ and broadcasters’ affiliates will retain current names — Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, respectively. Recording artists will be in the American Federation of Recording Artists.

And AFTRA president John Connolly and SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert issued a statement stressing the long-term aims of the business plans and constitutions: “These materials will provide the foundation for a new strong and effective organization, protecting artists’ rights and interests in the global marketplace.”

The agreements also detail procedures for a transition period, during which the new union would be governed by an interim board of current SAG and AFTRA board members, with Gilbert and Connolly as co-presidents and the current treasurers as co-treasurers.

The plans also include the structure for a fees and dues structure, but details were not released. Broadcasters have begun to complain of plans calling for a uniform structure since the cap on their AFTRA dues is currently less than half of SAG’s cap.

Tightening eligibility rules

Another potential stumbling block comes from the new SAG constitution’s possible tightening of rules for allowing thesps to qualify for SAG membership through background work. SAG and AFTRA said the provision has been added “in response to member input.”

“The joint committee recognized that the current three-voucher system in place for background actors in SAG has a number of inherent problems and must be eliminated and replaced with a more restrictive method of qualification,” Gilbert said.

No details were disclosed as to the new requirement, but the issue could be divisive. In the wake of SAG members voting down a revamped agent franchise agreement a year ago, guild execs floated the idea of imposing a minimum work requirement to maintain voting rights, but fierce board opposition led to the idea being back-burnered and never brought to the board until now.

Connolly said it was appropriate for the joint committee to address such issues and issued a united-we-stand appeal for actors, broadcasters and recording artists to see the big picture rather than focusing on smaller issues: “While employment environments may differ, we clearly all share, as workers and employees of the very same corporations, far more in common than not.”

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