Thesp leaders meet on merger

SAG, AFTRA hammer out proposal details

Not even Hurricane Irene stopped leaders of showbiz performer unions from meeting over the weekend to craft a merger plan.

Despite the massive storm on the East Coast, reps of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists met via videoconference Saturday at SAG headquarters in Los Angeles and New York. An informal planning sesh was held Sunday to set the agenda for a second videoconference on Monday.

With Irene approaching Friday, the videoconferences were substituted for what had been planned as a three-day face-to-face meeting in New York starting Saturday as the second of four multiday confabs to hammer out details of the merger proposal.

SAG and AFTRA spokespeople had no comment Sunday about the substance of the meetings.

Last month SAG’s national board approved spending $2.2 million on the merger process. Reps of SAG and AFTRA met for three days in June in Silver Spring, Md., at the National Labor College in the first of four confabs with the aim of delivering a merger plan by January to their respective national boards.

No date’s been set yet for the vote by the 70,000 members of the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists and the 120,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild. The unions still haven’t sorted out the name of the combined union, dues structure and governance — all of which could provide ammunition for opponents.

At the June meeting, the reps established work groups on governance and structure; finance and dues; collective bargaining, pension, health and retirement; operations and staff; and member education and outreach.

A member vote could take place by spring.

SAG president Ken Howard, who has made merger his signature issue over the two past two years, is seeking re-election for a second two-year term as part of the Unite for Strength faction, which is running 34 candidates for Hollywood seats. The self-styled moderates have taken over the national board in the last three elections from the now-dormant Membership First faction, which insisted SAG remain a union for actors only, without AFTRA’s broadcasters and musicians — then didn’t win a single national board seat last fall.

Though Membership First isn’t running a slate, six candidates issued a paid email message to members Friday that accused Howard and Unite for Strength of not providing explicit answers to merger questions and asking them to trust the leadership instead.

“Based on two years of deficit spending, the loss of almost all new TV shows (at a cost of over $100 million to SAG members) and SAG’s overall weakened condition, ‘trust’ is something we can no longer afford to give,” the message said. “Creating a merger plan behind closed doors with AFTRA is unacceptable.”

The message also said the merger plan needs to answer whether the new union require its members to work only union jobs as SAG does now and whether the new union will have requirements for membership as SAG does now.

The message was signed by board members Scott Bakula, David Jolliffe and William Mapother and former board members George Coe, Valerie Harper and Esai Morales.

Pro-merger candidates have argued that a combined union would be stronger and resolve long-standing jurisdictional problems.

“If employers have the ability to divide us, they will — and it will cost us dearly,” said Unite for Strength leader Ned Vaughn in a recent statement. “We have the power to take that ability away from them, and we must. It’s time to put an end to divided work, split pension and health contributions and, above all, the dangerous vulnerability of separate contract negotiations. One union is the answer – it will make us stronger now and it’s essential to protecting our future.”

Approval requires a 60% super-majority from those voting in both unions. SAG members rebuffed similar efforts in 1998 and 2003 amid concerns that a merger would cause SAG to lose its unique character as an actors union and that a combo could negatively impact the health and pension plans.

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