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Wary of working together

Union coop worries SAG

The Screen Actors Guild has gotten cold feet over working together with other showbiz unions on organizing and bargaining.

SAG’s kept the debate — centering on an AFL-CIO initiative with 10 other unions — hidden from its members and made no public comment. But, as with many other issues, its elected leadership is split over whether to join the AFL-CIO’s Industry Coordinating Committee for Arts Media and Entertainment.

Opponents warn that if SAG becomes part of the ICC, the other 10 unions will be able to dictate the guild’s policies and strategies. The AFL-CIO, which has been hit hard by the defections of half a dozen major unions, has insisted that such concerns are overblown.

“It’s fair to say that every union that’s joined the ICC has had the same concerns,” said Mike Gildea, exec director of the AFL-CIO’s Dept. of Professional Employees. “Everything about the ICC is voluntary. And the ultimate authority on collective bargaining rests with the individual union.”

Gildea asserted that the AFL-CIO’s goal in setting up the committees last summer was simple — identify areas of common interest among similar unions and then develop and coordinate strategies as a way of dealing effectively with declining union membership nationwide.

But Gildea also acknowledged SAG’s been a tough sell, since the issue brings up questions regarding the guild’s autonomy similar to those raised in 2003 when SAG’s elected leadership battled bitterly over merging with AFTRA. “We’ve been trying to facilitate those discussions,” he added.

AFL-CIO chief John Sweeney was an ardent campaigner for the merger, which was narrowly defeated by SAG members amid concerns that the guild would lose its unique status as an actors union and that its health and retirement plans would be negatively impacted by merging with AFTRA’s plans. SAG’s moderate wing, led by then-president Melissa Gilbert, backed the merger as a means of saving money and giving actors more clout.

SAG president Alan Rosenberg’s Membership First faction remains adamantly opposed to any move toward merger with AFTRA — a major factor in last fall’s firing of Greg Hessinger as SAG chief exec.

At last month’s national board meeting, SAG senior adviser John McGuire pressed the board to approve SAG’s signing up for the AFL-CIO committee. But Membership First reps delayed the proposal until the July meeting and have expressed concerns over the apparent restrictions in the agreement.

For example, part of the ICC agreement says that member unions that choose not to participate in ICC proceedings “shall nonetheless be bound by the single or multi-union organizing plans it develops, the contract standards that may be established separately or as part of agreed-upon organizing initiatives and other decisions it may make.”

The issue’s also caused a possible divide between Rosenberg and some of his board allies. Rosenberg, who was elected last year on a platform of taking a more aggressive bargaining stance, has indicated to associates that he generally supports the concept of joining the ICC as long as the language in the agreement can be revised.

For now, SAG’s the lone holdout in a group that includes Actors Equity, AFTRA, the American Federation of Musicians, the American Guild of Musical Artists, IATSE, the Intl. Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the National Assn. of Broadcast Employees and Technicians, the Newspaper Guild and the WGA East. The DGA and the WGA West are not AFL-CIO members.

By contrast, AFTRA was an enthusiastic participant in the ICC, announcing last November that it was joining and then reiterating that support at its national board meeting this month.

“The Industry Coordinating Committee would operate under principles set by unions in the arts, media and entertainment industries,” said AFTRA topper Kim Roberts Hedgpeth. “It provides a forum for employees to work together and receive support from the AFL-CIO to steer our own destinies as participants in common industries with common employers.”

With SAG representing the most publicly prominent union among the 11 ICC members, its apparent lack of enthusiasm represents another black eye for the AFL-CIO, which has been hobbled by deep disagreements over organizing strategies since last year. Opponents to joining the Industry Coordinating Committee have raised the issue of SAG leaving the AFL-CIO — to which it pays $400,000 in annual dues — and possibly joining the other defectors in the Change to Win group including the SEIU, Teamsters, Unite Here and the United Food and Commercial Workers, repping 6 million members.

The Change to Win unions were joined this week by the Laborers Intl. Union, which represents another 350,000 members.

But SAG supporters of the AFL-CIO assert the federation’s provided valuable assistance to SAG in the past, such as during the 2000 commercials strike.

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