Unions act out merger script with new leaders

Exex swap expected to spur marriage campaign

The urge to merge is back at SAG and AFTRA.

The performers’ unions are about to swap leaders. SAG chief Bob Pisano will leave next month after three-plus tumultuous years, to be replaced by AFTRA national exec director Greg Hessinger.

The move may mean merger — not right away, but some form of campaign will be launched as soon as Hessinger settles in.

The efforts to marry SAG and AFTRA date back almost seven decades, culminated by SAG members’ voting down the idea twice after acrimonious campaigns:

1938: The fledgling Screen Actors Guild, the then-American Federation of Radio Artists and the Associated Actors & Artistes of America mull merger. Plan is rejected due to concerns that the larger union would be less democratic.

1948: At the dawn of the TV age, officials again fail to reach an agreement. The unions fight bitterly over the burgeoning field of television.

1956: AFTRA reaches an agreement with the nets giving it jurisdiction over tape. SAG charges AFTRA has acted in secret; its board goes on record against a merger.

1960: The unions agree to commission a feasibility study that finds while a merger would be complex, it is possible. SAG still opposes merger; AFTRA still favors it. The issue eventually loses traction.

1980: The unions initiate Phase I, a plan to jointly negotiate contracts where they have common interests, but never move to Phase II joint board meetings.

1998: Following a bitter campaign, AFTRA approves a merger, with 67% in favor. But only 46% of the required 60% of SAG voters support the deal.

2003: Three-quarters of AFTRA members approve a merger, SAG falls 2% short of the required 60%.

Pisano and Hessinger were at the forefront of that 2003 campaign, asserting 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 moderate Restore Respect wing of the union, led by president Melissa Gilbert and secretary-treasurer James Cromwell, strongly supports merger, while the more confrontational Membership First faction, led by board member Kent McCord, remains bitterly opposed.

Hessinger clearly has his work cut out for him.

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