Unite for Strength pushes for AFTRA merger

Amid a bitter battle for control of the Screen Actors Guild board, the upstart Unite for Strength faction has promised it won’t implement qualified voting by SAG members.

“We will take no action as members of the SAG board of directors to take away any member’s right to vote on SAG contracts or any other SAG matter,” the coalition said Monday.

The move by Unite for Strength appears designed to defuse a potentially explosive campaign talking point by incumbent group Membership First, which has been warning that Unite for Strength may limit voting rights if it wins the election. Membership First, which dominates the Hollywood board seats, has noted that most of the Unite for Strength slate of 31 candidates supported a move earlier this year to impose a work requirement on SAG members voting on contracts.

The announcement came a day before ballots were due to be sent out to SAG’s 120,000 members, with the vote set for tabulation on Sept. 18.

“The timing of their announcement is curious,” noted Membership First rep Anne-Marie Johnson. “We see this as a poster child of flip-flopping, and there’s no guarantee that if they control the national board, they would not impose some form of qualifiers.”

The election’s being closely watched by the town amid growing impatience over the lack of resolution in SAG’s contract negotiations. The guild’s New York leaders have called for a federal mediator to join the stalled bargaining, prompting SAG president Alan Rosenberg to deride the action as politicizing the bargaining process.

SAG, which has been without a contract since June 30, has also scheduled a special national board meeting for Thursday. It hasn’t disclosed the agenda, but it’s understood the event will include a negotiations update and discussion of the request for a mediator.

Unite for Strength stressed in the announcement that its platform centers on pushing for a merger with rival thesp union AFTRA in an effort to increase actors’ leverage at the negotiating table.

“We came together under the Unite for Strength banner to run for the SAG board of directors to accomplish one goal above all others — unify SAG and AFTRA to give actors more power at the bargaining table,” the group said. “However, Membership First has attempted to mislead members about our intentions by suggesting that we seek to strip some members of their union voting rights, including the right to vote in elections such as this one.”

Unite for Strength said the proposal would not have limited the ability of any member to participate in elections to select SAG leaders or in strike authorization votes. “Regardless of the merits, it is a non-issue in this election — and Membership First knows that,” the org added.

More than 1,400 actors signed a petition earlier this year asking that SAG’s board institute a requirement that would have limited those able to vote on the contract to those who — over the past six years — have performed an average of at least one day principal work or six days background work per year; or are fully vested in the SAG Producers Pension Plan. Backers of the petition noted less than 20% of SAG members earn over $7,500 annually.

SAG’s board referred the proposal to a committee in April after Rosenberg accused its backers of elitism and of weakening SAG’s leverage as it headed into negotiations.

In another development Monday, AFTRA president Roberta Reardon advised the AFL-CIO that AFTRA’s delayed seeking raiding charges against SAG and asked that AFL-CIO attempt again to mediate the disputes between the unions — seven months after the labor federation first intervened. In a letter to AFl-CIO topper John Sweeney, Reardon said AFTRA leaders decided to hold off on seeking sanctions against SAG for a variety of reasons — including the potential “distraction” to SAG in negotiating a feature-primetime deal.

For its part, SAG said AFTRA has no basis for seeking sanctions. SAG’s complained in recent years about AFTRA signing contracts at lower terms in shared jurisdiction and its disproportionate representation on joint bargaining committees.

“SAG has engaged in a concerted campaign designed to bring AFTRA into public disrepute and destroy AFTRA’s reputation,” Reardon said.Reardon and AFTRA national exec director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth also said Monday in a letter to SAG that AFTRA was ready to jointly negotiate the commericals contract with SAG. But Rosenberg and SAG national exec director Doug Allen disputed the wording, saying it was “unclear” whether AFTRA had accepted SAG’s offer of joint negotiations, made July 9.

That pact expires at the end of October, but no talks have been set. The ad industry has indicated it wants one negotiation rather than two, and the unions have hinted they’d like the current pact extended for six months so SAG can first complete its work on the feature-primetime deal.

SAG and AFTRA had negotiated jointly for three decades on contracts until this year, when AFTRA asserted that SAG had abrogated the Phase I bargaining agreement.

The letter to SAG said the agreement to return to joint negotiations must still be approved by AFTRA’s national board at its regularly scheduled October meeting. But Rosenberg and Allen said the preparation process needs to start immediately.

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