Support overwhelming among those polled at SAG Awards

Taking the temperature of thesps on the SAG Awards red carpet, actors are definitely fired up about the prospect of a merger of SAG and AFTRA.

An overwhelming number of actors queried at the SAG Awards said the merger of Hollywood’s performers unions was long overdue — some thesps did not want to give an opinion, but none said they were opposed to the merger. Actors believe the united org would have greater clout at the bargaining table with the congloms that rule media and showbiz.

“Unity is strength in this respect,” said Patrick Stewart. “Beingapart works against our interests.”

Numerous actors noted the difficulties thesps face in working under different union contracts, which makes it harder to build up their pension funds and to qualify for health coverage.

“I’m very pro-merger,” “Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston said. “It’s something that has been a long time in coming. We need to be one actors union — totally, otherwise you have problems where you don’t earn enough in either one. We have to put an end to that.”

Cranston, like many others, argued that Actors’ Equity should also be merged into an uber SAG-AFTRA org to make it easier for working actors to do theater and accrue health and pension benefits.

SAG prexy Ken Howard, who made a merger the pillar of his election campaign under the Unite for Strength faction, told Variety that he would like to see Equity join with SAG and AFTRA over the long term. For now, he and AFTRA chief Roberta Reardon have been on a listening tour with actors around the country to get feedback on how a merged SAG and AFTRA should be structured. Howard hopes that SAG and AFTRA can hold a member referendum on a merger by this time next year.

He said the response from members so far has been “all very positive — there’s an incredible energy to get this done as soon as we can.” Indeed, Howard got an enthusiastic roar when he mentioned during the kudocast that actors will soon be hearing more about the merger effort.

Melissa Leo gave the merger an impassioned plug during her acceptance remarks after winning the supporting trophy for “The Fighter.”

“Unions made this country great by giving voice to the workers,” she said. “Let’s join together.”

Julianna Margulies, who won drama actress for the second year in a row for “The Good Wife,” said actors need the bargaining clout.

“Our power comes in numbers,” she said backstage. “We’re in a world where actors need to have a bigger voice.”

Howard said SAG’s immediate focus is to solicit feedback and do research on the best way to integrate the two entities. He noted that the last merger referendum in 2003 was rejected by SAG members in part because of unfounded concerns that SAG members would lose pension benefits already accrued — something prohibited by federal law. He compared the anti-merger campaigned waged back then to “weapons of mass destruction (in Iraq),” he said. “They can’t use that one again.”

Kate Flannery, a trouper on “The Office,” said she was strongly in favor of a merger to allow a unified org to “have a really strong pension fund and good benefits.” She credited SAG’s current leadership with having “its eyes and ears open to the new world we’re in” for actor salaries. She noted that thesps used to “be able to make a good living doing guest star” roles, but the job market and compensation dynamic have dramatically changed with the recession.

Kyra Sedgwick, star of “The Closer,” echoed the sentiments of many thesps in saying: “It’s the right thing to do. Every one of us is in the same boat. We’re all actors. We need this.”

“Mad Men” trouper Chris Stanley said he sees unification as “the inevitable direction we need to go to be stronger as a union and get the rights actors deserve, and the residuals and benefits they deserve.”

Corey Reynolds, a thesp on “The Closer,” noted that the merged unions could save money on administrative expenses by not having to maintain parallel staffs and branches around the country. “The sooner we can unify our voice, we’ll all do better,” he said.

Perhaps the most authoritative voice on the matter was that of this year’s SAG life achievement honoree, Ernest Borgnine. “It’s about time,” he said. “It will mean more money in our coffers. And that’s what it’s all about — money.”

A significant question to be determined is what the merged entity would be called. Last time around, the proposed moniker was the unwieldy Alliance of Intl. Media Artists. Howard said he wanted to keep it simple, i.e., SAG-AFTRA or AFTRA-SAG.

“I just don’t want to have confusion by doing a whole new set of letters,” he said.

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