'Presidents forum' held to determine vision

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have taken another formal step toward hammering out the details of merging.

Though SAG and AFTRA haven’t yet set a date for a merger vote, SAG and AFTRA announced Friday that they had held the first “presidents forum” — an arrangement crafted this summer by SAG president Ken Howard and AFTRA prexy Roberta Reardon to informally establish a “common vision” for a single union.

Reps of both performers unions met Thursday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. Howard and Reardon attended along with AFTRA national exec director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth and SAG national exec director David White.

The confab took place a month after SAG members voted overwhelmingly in favor of candidates from Howard’s Unite for Strength slate, which had made merger its keystone issue. In a statement issued Friday, both unions said the meeting lasted nearly three hours and discussed the “strong and growing desire” of members to form one union.

“The group also reviewed possible parameters for future discussions and committed to hearing from a wide array of member groups in both unions about their specific needs and concerns,” the statement said. “The Forum also discussed the benefits of retaining an independent facilitator to help develop a process and timeline.”

Reardon called the confab “extremely productive” while Howard said the group’s already considering dates in November for the next meeting. “I’m committed to moving forward and to engaging in a public and transparent process that will foster buy-in across our memberships,” he added.

SAG has 120,000 actors as members, and AFTRA has 70,000 members, including broadcasters and singers; about 45,000 thesps are dual members.

Previous moves to persuade SAG members to support merging have been turned away due to concerns such as SAG losing its identity as an actors union and the difficulties of combining the pension ands health plans. The name chosen for the 2003 merger attempt — the Alliance of Intl. Media Artists — failed to gain much traction before the SAG vote fell just short of the required 60% support.

Merger supporters have contended recently that split jurisdiction in primetime is leading to actors being unable to meet earnings thresholds to qualify for the health plans. They also say the combined unions would run more efficiently as a single org and have more bargaining clout.

AFTRA angrily split from SAG in 2008 over jurisdictional beefs and negotiated its own primetime deal for the first time in three decades. Under Howard, SAG has mended fences and the two unions have been negotiating for the past four weeks on a new primetime-feature deal.

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