Federation prexy says SAG 'needs to figure it out'

Don’t expect the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists to merge any time soon.

Despite widespread expectations that leaders of the performers unions will make a third attempt to combine — following failed efforts in 1999 and 2003 that were voted down by SAG members — AFTRA president Roberta Reardon maintains that a renewed push for a merger is far from imminent.

“We’re not looking to hold a yard sale on our membership,” Reardon said in a far-ranging interview session Friday at AFTRA national headquarters in Los Angeles.

Reardon, who’s likely to be re-elected next month for a second two-year term, noted that while AFTRA’s officially on the record as favoring a merger, it won’t actively pursue such a step until SAG comes onboard enthusiastically as supporting an unconditional combination, rather than having SAG rep only all actors. About 26,000 of AFTRA’s 70,000 members are news anchors and correspondents, hosts, musicians, weather forecasters and other performer categories.

“It’s all of us or none of us,” Reardon said.

Though Reardon gave no specific date as to how and when a merger process might begin, she predicted it would not happen before SAG’s mandated round of TV-film contract talks with the congloms in October 2010.

“AFTRA has spent an enormous amount of time, energy and money on merger attempts,” Reardon said. “Before we go further, SAG needs to figure it out.”

A combined performers union would have about 150,000 members. SAG has 120,000 members while 44,000 of AFTRA’s members have dual membership in SAG. A merger at this point would be “incredibly ambitious,” Reardon said.

Merger advocates have asserted that a combined union would have more clout with the majors and gain in operating efficiencies. Opponents have insisted SAG would lose its unique identity and its health and retirement plans would be damaged. SAG’s leaders have remained split over the idea of a merger, with the ruling moderate coalition favoring the notion, and the hardline Membership First faction opposed.

Reardon also said Friday it’s uncertain whether AFTRA and SAG will negotiate the primetime TV contract together again. SAG’s already locked in to seven weeks of talks starting in October 2010 with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers (Daily Variety, June 19).

“We haven’t had any discussions with SAG about that,” Reardon said.

Relations between SAG and AFTRA hit a low last year when AFTRA angrily split off from joint negotiations and reached its own primetime deal. SAG then blasted the terms of the pact, which had a relatively low 62% ratification. With SAG stalled in its contract negotiations, AFTRA was able to sign up the lion’s share of this year’s TV pilots that were shot digitally.

Last fall, AFTRA and SAG agreed to a deal brokered by the AFL-CIO that included “nondisparagement” language along with fines and other discipline for violators, in order to end the bickering.

AFTRA national exec director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth confirmed Friday that AFTRA has complained to the AFL-CIO about alleged violations of the pact — including a move by the Hollywood board in May to establish a task force to explore “acquisition” of AFTRA actors by SAG. She said a ruling by the AFL-CIO would probably come by the end of the month.

The enmity toward AFTRA remains strong in some SAG quarters. Justine Bateman resigned recently from SAG’s national board of directors, blasting the moderates who control the board, repeating her characterization of AFTRA as a “scumbag” union for signing contracts at lower terms, and asserting that she no longer wanted to be bound by the non-disparagement agreement.

Reardon also admitted that there hasn’t been any move toward setting up a summit meeting with SAG, the DGA and the WGA — with all four unions’ contracts with the majors expiring in mid-2011 — to plot a coordinated bargaining strategy. She had proposed the idea a year ago, but said Friday she’d wait until after the upcoming round of elections before exploring such a step.

Reardon and Hedgpeth stressed during the session that AFTRA’s giving increased emphasis to organizing nonunion productions, particularly in new media. The key to success, they believe, is to educate members — who are banned by the union for doing nonunion work — about the value of working under an AFTRA deal.

“We could fine people,” Reardon admitted. “But the best way to deal with it is to make everyone know that we’re all in this together.”

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