Third time a charm?

Will the third time be a charm for merging SAG and AFTRA?

American Federation of Television & Radio Artists topper Kim Roberts Hedgpeth isn’t making predictions, even with AFTRA’s national board due to meet this weekend to endorse officially starting development of a formal merger plan.

Hedgpeth, in an interview with Variety, spoke about the current efforts to galvanize the two unions into a single entity, and how AFTRA leadership may attempt to persuade performers by framing the issue in historical terms.

“On my first day of working at AFTRA in 1981, I was fresh out of law school, and the air traffic controllers were fired by President Reagan,” she recalled. “It was a very fundamental mesage about how our power structure doesn’t value organized labor. The good news is what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

That history resonates today, with legislatures in Wisconson and other states moving to strip away collective bargaining rights. “Sometimes, you just have to take the punches, so we’ve grown accustomed to what it’s like to take a standing eight count,” Roberts said. “I’m married to an ex-boxer (former New Jersey law-enforcement exec Gilbert W. Hedgpeth), you know.”

Leaders of the Screen Actors Guild took a serious step toward merging with AFTRA on April 30. SAG’s national board of directors voted unanimously to endorse a mission statement to create a single performers union along with creating a 13-member task force to work with AFTRA counterparts in developing a formal merger plan to be submitted in January for approval by the two national boards.

It’s still unclear what the new union might be called and whether Hedgpeth or SAG national exec director David White would be in charge. But with no formal anti-merger movement yet organized, the current state of affairs represents a sea change from the early 2000s, when AFTRA was forced to issue a one-time assessment to straighten out its finances; or 2003, when SAG members voted down the merger; or the 2006-08 span, when SAG and AFTRA were at each other’s throats over jurisdictional issues — which included SAG blasting AFTRA over offering cable companies lower rates and AFTRA blasting SAG for its failure to report an attempt actors on a soap to decertify. The rancor between the two unions was so deep, it led to separate negotiations with the majors. 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.

Roberts said that period of discord between the unions was extremely troubling to her.

“That was a very painful period in 2007-08,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for how the Directors Guild operates with a vision and tries to be thoughtful and take a long-term approach.”

SAG and AFTRA have since mended fences, and the two unions negotiated jointly for seven weeks last fall on a successor primetime-feature deal. But the vast majority of TV pilots have signed with AFTRA rather than SAG over the past three seasons as SAG’s longstanding hold on primetime work continues to erode, even though SAG’s elected leadership has become more moderate and less confrontational.

Hedgpeth said the lessons of the past sometimes aren’t evident [No Paragraph Style]Text (Text Styles)until fresh context changes the framing. She recalled that at her first national convention with AFTRA in 2005, the issues addressed were sounds recordings, TV commercials, audiobooks and employment and the growth of nondramatic programming in basic cable.

“A few weeks later, Disney announced the deal for the iPod — which is a good lesson in how quickly things can change — and sound recordings really wound up being the canary in the coal mine,” she said. “People are having to work across all kinds of formats. New platforms are creating fundamental changes in the work. We have to look at that on a two-year, three-year and five-year horizon … and recognize that the way we did things five to 10 years ago may not make sense any more.”

To illustrate the importance of long-term planning, Hedgpeth cites the fact that Sound Exchange distributed $250 million in music royalties last year as compensation for streaming, satellite and digital cable.

“That’s the result of legislation that was passed in 1994 and in 1998 and discussions that began in 1992,” she said. “That’s why a long view matters.” By this time next year, the 120,000 members of SAG and the 70,000 members of AFTRA (45,000 members belonging to both) could be voting on a merger. But the vote isn’t likely to be a slam dunk, particularly on the SAG side.

Membership First, which has lost nearly all its power, campaigned last year on a platform of supporting a merger but only if the new union was limited to actors and excluded the broadcasters, journos and recording artists now covered by AFTRA.

Alan Rosenberg, who served as SAG prexy for two terms between 2005 and 2009, has accused AFTRA’s leaders of being unwilling to take strong positions at the negotiating table. But that message has fallen flat in the last three member elections. There are now less than a dozen Membership First reps — notably Ed Asner, Diane Ladd, Ed Harris and Martin Sheen — on the SAG board along with a handful on the AFTRA boards; several have grown frustrated over what they perceive to be SAG’s lack of effort to sign primetime shows shot on digital.

But Roberts also takes a long-term view of the shift in primetime, noting that large numbers of shows were under AFTRA jurisdiction in the 1980s.

“As companies have combined, some have long-term agreements with us and I think they may be more comfortable with us,” she said.

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