SAG, AFTRA plan 'listening tour' before 2012 vote

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the merger between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists.

AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said the member vote on merging SAG and AFTRA probably won’t take place until early next year.

“We’re being very careful about this although we’re well aware of the urgency of this issue among our members,” she told Daily Variety in an interview Wednesday. “I think it’s realistic that early 2012 would be the date for a ratification vote, although that’s not at all official.”

Reardon and SAG prexy Ken Howard will hold meetings Friday and Saturday in L.A. with invited members of both unions in the first of a series of “listening tour” confabs to discuss merger. The presidents held a “beta testing” get-together last month in New York to try out the format; they plan to hold similar meetings in regional offices during the first quarter, starting with Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., later this month.

Reardon said members of both unions have been overwhelmingly positive so far to the idea of merging SAG and AFTRA, citing an array of concerns, including the shifting of work to nonunion producers and contributing to separate pension and health funds.

Merger supporters have contended that split jurisdiction between SAG and AFTRA 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.

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

“Merger really is the issue of the moment,” Reardon said. “It’s only appropriate that unions should be exploring combining after all the corporate mergers of the last 20 years.”

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 and 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 level.

Reardon said Wednesday that leaders are nowhere near deciding on a name for the combined union and such decisions will be driven by member feedback. She also said there would be no effort to combine the pension and health plans — which are operated separately from the unions and overseen by reps of the unions and the employers — prior to a merger vote.

“It would be next to impossible to combine the plans if we haven’t first merged,” Reardon added. “The employers would never to agree to it otherwise.”

The “listening tour” comes on the heels of having held a “presidents forum,” an arrangement crafted by Howard and Reardon to informally establish a “common vision” for a single union. In September, SAG members voted overwhelmingly in favor of candidates from Howard’s Unite for Strength slate, which had made merger its keystone issue.

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 negotiated jointly for the seven weeks this fall on a new primetime-feature deal, which was sent out last month to members for ratification.

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