AFL-CIO to take hands-off attitude

Six years after actively campaigning for combining the performers’ unions, AFL-CIO prexy John Sweeney indicated Wednesday during an appearance in Hollywood that the federation’s taking a hands-off attitude on any move toward merger between SAG and AFTRA – at least until both unions fully support such a combination.

“We are not going to force them to do anything that they don’t want to do,” he said in an interview with Daily Variety. “These are two autonomous unions, and I have good relationships with both.”

Sweeney, who’s retiring next month after 14 years at the head of the AFL-CIO, was in Hollywood to speak at a rally outside the Vermont Hand Wash in support of efforts to unionize car wash employees.

The AFL-CIO gave substantial support to the 2003 efforts to merge the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, with Sweeney asserting that the combo would give actors, broadcasters and recording artists a stronger voice as entertainment congloms continued to consolidate operations. SAG members narrowly voted down the proposal, which required 60% approval, over concerns that SAG would lose its unique character and that merging the pension and health plans could be problematic.

During Sweeney’s tenure at the AFL-CIO, he’s advocated similar mergers among other unions in order to give the merged entities more clout and achieve improved operating efficiency.

AFTRA president Roberta Reardon has supported the idea of a merger but with the caveat that SAG would have to endorse an unconditional combination, rather than have SAG rep merely all actors – which would disinclude AFTRA’s news talent, among others – a notion that’s gained traction among the Membership First faction at SAG. She’s also said a move toward a merger would not happen before SAG’s mandated round of TV-film contract talks with the congloms in October 2010.

Relations between SAG and AFTRA cratered early last year when AFTRA angrily split off from joint negotiations and reached its own primetime deal. AFTRA members ratified the pact over SAG’s objections, and 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.

The merger issue’s part of the current campaign for control of the SAG national board, which shifted last year away from the more confrontational Membership First faction and toward a coalition of moderates.

Anne-Marie Johnson, who’s running for SAG president as head of the Membership First slate, has said she favors “creating a concrete plan that SAG members can support, blending all actors under one roof, without diminishing/weakening SAG’s P&H plans, negotiating leverage or sovereignty.”

Ken Howard, who’s running for president as head of the Unite for Strength faction, has said he will focus on “building maximum unity with AFTRA and other entertainment guilds to give us real power when we sit down to negotiate contracts.”

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