SAG benefits turn sickly

Guild factions play benefits blame game

With election campaigning entering its final phase, the Screen Actors Guild’s health and pension plans have become the latest battleground.

The two major factions have been blaming each other over the plans’ disclosure last week that participants in the plans will see significantly reduced benefits and increased premiums beginning in January. The plans — which are operated jointly by trustees representing SAG and the entertainment industry — also disclosed that employer contributions are down 10% in 2009.

“This represents the largest drop in plan history and does not account for the full impact of the decrease in SAG-covered television pilots, which has yet to be realized,” the plans said in their newsletter. “The health plan also faces a continuing threat of inflation as the cost of health care continues to rise about 9% annually.”

Because of SAG’s prolonged contract stalemate, nearly all new TV pilots signed with AFTRA this year. The delivery of the newsletter prompted the Unite for Strength faction to blame the Membership First group for its strategy of hostility toward AFTRA, which resulted in AFTRA negotiating separately from SAG.

“The cost of the decision last year to fight with AFTRA rather than partner with them on our biggest contract negotiation has already been deeply felt, but it hasn’t been fully realized yet,” said board candidate Ned Vaughn in a message to Unite for Strength supporters with the title “Vote to Protect Your SAG P&H Benefits.”

SAG first VP Anne-Marie Johnson, who heads the hardline Membership First ticket, unleashed a torrent of criticism in response, taking issue with the assertion that she and her allies are to blame for the plans’ problems due to their unsuccessful stance that the guild should hold out for better terms in new-media earnings.

“We see it differently,” she said. “We were fighting hard to protect what we had and to secure revenue in areas that could generate millions for our employers. Sadly, there will be little to no contributions made to SAG’s P&H generated from these revenue streams.”

SAG will announce its election results Sept. 24, with Johnson running for president against Unite for Strength’s Ken Howard and independents Seymour Cassel and Asmar Muhammad. The moderate coalition, which won control of the national board last fall, is expected to remain in control of that 71-member panel.

Johnson also asserted that the Unite for Strength push for a SAG-AFTRA merger is “extremely premature” given the difficulties in combining the health and pension plans.

In March, SAG’s pension plan disclosed that the value of its assets declined by 22.7% in 2008. This represents a loss of $800 million, leaving it with a value of about $2.1 billion (Daily Variety, April 1).

Last week’s newsletter said the pension now stands at 78% funded for its obligation, leaving the plan in the “seriously endangered” category. Accordingly, the plan requires reduced accrual rates for benefits; currently at 3.5%, they will drop to 2% in January.

As for the SAG health plan, Plan I monthly premiums will rise from $50 to $83, with Plan II rising from $65 to $98. The plan will also charge senior performers a premium for the first time of $25 a month.

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