Board elections to weigh pros and cons of union

The prospect of a renewed push for a merger between SAG and AFTRA is looming large over the Screen Actors Guild’s upcoming board election.

The pros and cons of a union of the unions is a key issue in the campaigning among those seeking seats on SAG’s 71-member national board, even though the merger itself is not an issue on the ballot.

SAG’s 70,000 members in the Hollywood branch will see their mailboxes and email inboxes fill up over the next month with missives from SAG’s rival governing factions, Unite for Strength and Membership First, addressing the merger question. Ballots for the board election were mailed to SAG members this week, with the results set to be announced Sept. 23.

Unite for Strength — which has made a renewed push for a SAG-AFTRA merger its defining issue — has racked up endorsements from Alec Baldwin, Matt Damon, Felicity Huffman, William H. Macy, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington. UFS and its allies in New York and other branches are aiming to increase their narrow majority of between 55% and 60% of the seats on the national board.

“Protecting actors and their families is serious business,” Damon states in the UFS mailer. “UFS understands we’re much stronger if SAG and AFTRA become one union, and I trust them to make it happen. They have my full support.”

Membership First, which lost its board majority to UFS in 2008, is campaigning on a platform of supporting a merger, but only if the new union is limited to actors and excludes the broadcasters, journalists and recording artists now covered by AFTRA. SAG members have voted against an AFTRA merger twice before, most recently in 2003.

With SAG and AFTRA sharing jurisdiction for work done in primetime TV, Membership First is also insisting that any merger plan work out how the separate SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans will be run under a merger.

“Our goal is that when a merger takes place, it benefits actors, because we weren’t elected by any other constituency except actors,” said Membership First leader Anne-Marie Johnson, who is SAG’s first VP. “The biggest issue for us is how do we deal with the health and pension plans at a time when health care costs are still rising.”

She also said Membership First is “wary” of any merger supported by the congloms represented by the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

Membership First is gearing up its campaign with a mailer going out this week and a weekend fund-raiser hosted by candidates Frances Fisher and Nancy Sinatra along with Richard Schiff.

UFS has emphasized that the rancor between SAG and AFTRA during the last round of contract negotiations, when Membership First controlled the SAG board, led to separate negotiations with the majors between the two unions. SAG’s talks were prolonged for more than a year, allowing AFTRA to cut a deal and expand its coverage of primetime skeins that would otherwise likely have been done under SAG contracts.

“Two years ago, (Membership First’s) repeated attacks on AFTRA led to separate negotiations, costing SAG members nearly $100 million in lost wages and benefits and opening the way for employers to divide our work by shifting new primetime TV shows to AFTRA,” UFS asserted in its mailer. “Membership First is trying to confuse voters by suddenly claiming that they support merger — but no amount of spin can hide the real story,” the missive said. “With UFS, you get a bargaining partnership between SAG and AFTRA. Under MF, you get separate negotiations — and the problems that follow.”

UFS is fielding a slate of 35 candidates to fill 13 seats on the national board allotted to Hollywood branch members. Membership First has 28 candidates on the ballot.

Several high-profile Membership First candidates have asserted that they’re also in favor of merging with AFTRA.

“Actors are fed up with the splitting of dues and the weakening of health and pension plans,” incumbent Esai Morales said in his campaign statement. “I believe in merger. But it must be a merger that places the needs of actors first.”

Former SAG president Alan Rosenberg, who’s campaigning for a board seat, offered a similar assessment.

“Many assume the inevitable merger with AFTRA will automatically make us stronger,” he said. “We must not assume; we must be vigilant. Our employers hope the joining of these two entities will result in a big, bloated bureaucracy, that will make their job easier.”

UFS’ mailer also touts the efforts made by SAG prexy Ken Howard and secretary-treasurer Amy Aquino to work with AFTRA leaders to lay the groundwork for the merger process. “I’m the only one with an opposing point of view,” Johnson told Daily Variety, but added that she’s precluded by confidentiality requirements from commenting further about the substance of those discussions.

Only a dozen of the 75 candidates for the 13 national board seats are independents and not part of Unite for Strength or Membership First.

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