Guild lobbies members as merger opponents continue protests

Members of the Screen Actors Guild can count on a push to approve a merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists during the next three weeks as the March 30 balloting deadline nears.

Merger backers are asserting that the SAG-AFTRA combo will increase bargaining strength and represent a first step toward solving the problem of performers not qualifiying for coverage under separate SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans.

Backers of the combo are scrambling to avoid a repeat of the 2003 defeat, when SAG members spurned an AFTRA merger by a margin of only 1,280 votes — or 2% short of the required 60% while 75% of AFTRA members supported the deal. The 2003 vote drew 54% of eligible SAG voters.

“I’m confident that it’s going to pass, particularly if we can get everyone to vote,” said SAG First VP Ned Vaughn. “Actors are busy people so we’re trying to persuade them to mail the ballots instead of letting them sit on their desks until it’s too late.”

Vaughn said that pension and health remains the key concern raised by members. “I think we’re making a real connection with members on that,” he added.

The SAG anti-merger forces have filed a lawsuit to block the vote count, alleging that the guild hasn’t adhered to its rules in sending out the proposal to members. Opponents staged their fifth consective Thursday afternoon protest in front of the SAG headquarters in Hollywood, complaining that the combination will dilute the power of middle-class actors.

The merger’s been endorsed by over 2,050 members, including George Clooney, Robert DeNiro, Danny DeVito and Tom Hanks. Opponents alleged that the merger will benefit producers such as the quartet with the admonition “If it’s good for producers, it’s bad for actors.”

Vaughn said that argument amounts to “Balkanizing” SAG by excluding successful actors.

“I think that’s antithetical to the union movement,” he added. “And it’s not as if Tom Hanks need this merger to happen.”

SAG and AFTRA have been staging informational meetings around the country since ballots went out Feb. 27 with Wednesday’s nights gathering at SAG headquarters drawing about 400. It’s slotted a Saturday meet in Santa Fe, N.M., followed by Monday gatherings in New York City, Chicago and Cleveland, a March 15 meet in New York, a March 17 gathering in Los Angeles and March 19 meeting in San Diego and Southfield, Mich.; March 20 in Cincinnati; March 21 in Indianapolis and March 22 in Columbus, Ohio.

Vaughn’s one of the leaders of the Unite For Strength faction that’s dominated SAG elections in recent years with a pro-merger message. He said the benefits of merging far outweigh the problems, adding, “It’s easy to be a naysayer and pick at the details.”

SAG and AFTRA also send out a postcard to members this week with title “Keep your benefits safe by making us all stronger. Bargaining strength is the foundation of all union protections including health and pension/retirement benefits.”

A hearing has been set for March 26 in federal court in Los Angeles on the anti-merger suit filed by Martin Sheen and 60 other actors. The action alleges SAG and its leaders are attempting to merge “without conducting the necessary due diligence” while SAG has labeled the suit “a clear attempt at circumventing the will of the membership” and “a public relations stunt.”

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