It's unclear how much performers will benefit from merger

SAG-AFTRA is beginning its first week with strong backing from its 150,000 members — but Hollywood is uncertain what course the merged union will take.

Friday’s raucous news conference at SAG’s Cagney Room featured renditions of Civil Rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and tough talk from union leaders touting the combined union as possessing far more bargaining clout than SAG and AFTRA individually.

But it’s unclear whether the combo union will take advantage of the perception that it has more leverage with majors. For the short term, the merged entity has plenty to do to sort out the unification of its residual fee systems and pension and health plans.

That’s partly because the elected leadership of SAG and AFTRA have eschewed confrontation in recent years, opting instead for moderation and pragmatism rather than saber-rattling about strikes.

Labor insiders disagree as to the effectiveness of a strike and the threat of a work stoppage — even four years after the WGA’s bitter 100-day strike. Strike supporters continue to assert that contract gains, particularly in new media, would never have been achieved otherwise, while opponents believe scribes are still paying the price for the action, as the companies moved toward lower-cost (and often non-union) programming in subsequent years.

The current leaders of SAG-AFTRA will be up for election in the summer of 2013 so the approach could again shift back to a more aggresive strategy. But SAG members have been strongly backing the pragmatic approach in recent years.

Skeptics doubt that SAG-AFTRA’s current leaders will threaten to strike given how they’ve behaved in recent years — despite Friday’s aggressive proclamations by SAG-AFTRA co-presidents Ken Howard and Roberta Reardon. But the fact that the majors won’t be able to use AFTRA as a bargaining chip in talks with SAG strengthens the hand of the combined union. And as industry veterans know, if actors go out on strike, film and TV production grinds to a halt.

“With this overwhelming vote, you have sent a message not only to all your fellow members but, most important, you have sent a message to our employers,” Howard said. “You have said loud and clear that this is not a fractured group. No, this is a united group. This is the largest and most powerful union in the entertainment and media industries, and we are now united in our commitment to improve the wages and working conditions, residuals and benefits that our members depend on.”

Reardon sounded similar themes: “This new union will give us the voice and presence we will need to protect and strengthen our contracts in existing media and to establish and grow our presence in emerging areas of work so that we can bring all these areas under SAG-AFTRA contracts — not just here in Los Angeles and in New York but in all areas of the country.”

But Alan Rosenberg, who served as SAG president between 2005 and 2009, told Variety that he’s dubious that the new SAG-AFTRA will show much backbone at the bargaining table — or threaten to strike. “It’s the end of unionism in Hollywood,” he said. “When it comes to increasing bargaining power, Roberta Reardon and Ken Howard intend to do exactly the opposite of what they’re saying. Our once-proud union has been busted — not by conglomerates but by their own leaders.”

Rosenberg pointed to actions by the SAG moderates in early 2009 when the board fired Doug Allen as national exec director over Allen’s insistence that a strike authorization vote be taken on the primetime-feature deal. That firing took place following a campaign against the strike vote by high-profile members such as Danny DeVito and George Clooney, who contended that SAG needed to accept the same deal that the WGA, DGA and AFTRA had already reached.

Rosenberg and his allies then avidly campaigned against ratification of the subsequent SAG deal, which was approved easily by 78% of those voting in June 2009. Three months later, Howard won the presidency over Anne-Marie Johnson and Seymour Cassel, with Howard heading the Unite for Strength faction — which has been dominant player in SAG politics since.

SAG’s deal in 2009 included the proviso that it would go first among the guilds in the next round of negotiations, leading to a three-year pact in late 2010 that set the template for the DGA and WGA pacts — a 2% increase in minimums and a 1.5% hike in employer contributions to the pension and health plans. With memories of the WGA strike still reverberating, none of the unions took strike authorization votes during the cycle.

SAG negotiated jointly with AFTRA and employed low-key strategies similar those of the DGA: minimal comment launching talks long before the contract expiration.

DGA president Taylor Hackford, WGA West prexy Christopher Keyser and WGA East president Michael Winship issued statements of support for SAG-AFTRA Friday after staying mum during the campaign.

And the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which serves as the bargaining arm for the majors, issued a short statement Friday that it “looks forward to a cooperative relationship with the new performers’ organization as we endeavor to address the challenges of operating in an industry undergoing transformation.”

Signals as to how SAG-AFTRA wields that power — particularly with its 110-member board dominated by self-styled moderates — won’t emerge for several more months. The new SAG-AFTRA board hasn’t yet set its first meeting.

The key SAG-AFTRA master contracts expire in March 2013 for commercials, with talks expected to start in October, and in June 2014 for primetime and features.

Johnson told Variety that she’s hopeful the promise of increased leverage will pay off, noting that she’s concerned about residuals being sliced. “As never before, I hope the membership stays engaged during the next negotiating cycle, particularly if there are indications that our residuals are in jeopardy,” she added.

SAG-AFTRA’s leaders received a major vindication via Friday’s voting in the face of an anti-merger campaign that featured a lawsuit led by Martin Sheen and Ed Harris. Sheen’s suit alleged SAG hadn’t adhered to its rules in sending out the proposal to members — including conducting an actuarial study on the impact of merging the SAG and AFTRA health and retirement plans. A federal judge turned down a motion on March 28 to block the counting of the votes, saying it was inappropriate for him to intervene in the internal affairs of the performers unions.

Turnout was high in both unions as more than half of eligible voters cast ballots, resulting in 86% support at AFTRA and 82% backing at SAG — whose members previously spurned mergers in 1999 and 2003.

The new union’s board won’t face elections until the summer of 2013. The more assertive Membership First faction controlled the board between 2005 and 2008 but has given up the name and lost nearly all its board presence with less than a dozen seats — filled by Scott Bakula, Elliott Gould, Harris, Johnson and Sheen, among others.

Ned Vaughn, a key UFS leader and the new SAG-AFTRA exec VP, said Sunday, “This overwhelming approval leaves no doubt about the collective will of our membership, and I hope it will motivate the few who fought hard against merger to shift their energies into the fight to improve our contracts. That’s the fight that matters most.”

Merger backers asserted repeatedly during the campaign that a SAG-AFTRA combo would increase bargaining strength and represent a first step toward solving the problem of performers not qualifying for coverage under separate SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans. Those plans are operated separately from the unions.

David White, who’s become the co-national exec director of SAG-AFTRA along with former AFTRA counterpart Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, would not say Friday how soon the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans would merge. “We’re going to begin that process,” White said.

Hollywood’s health care costs continue to be the key issue at the bargaining table. The AMPTP and the Intl. Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees jointly announced March 26 that they had suspended negotiations three weeks after starting — with four months to go before the current master contract ends July 31. Leaders of both sides have indicated privately that the complexity of health care issues, with the plans facing funding shortfalls amid escalating costs, led to the suspension of the talks.

AFTRA’s board showed some aggressiveness toward the companies on March 24 in what was its final meeting prior to the merger when it approved authorization of a “do not work” order for its several hundred members working on musicvideos as dancers. Several rounds of contract talks dating back to last summer were unproductive.

SAG and AFTRA last struck in 2000, when they staged a six-month work stoppage against the ad industry, which had demanded that residuals for ads aired on network TV be replaced by buyouts.

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