Carlson: Uniting SAG, AFTRA plans would create 'staggering' burden

Infighting’s continuing over the proposed merger between the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, with half a dozen new court filings seeking to derail the combo as part of an anti-merger lawsuit.

Robert Carlson, a trustee of the pension and health plans for the past seven years, is disputing SAG’s contention that merging the SAG and AFTRA plans will be beneficial and warned that doing so would create a “staggering” burden.

Carlson made the disclosure as part of filings in support of the suit filed by Martin Sheen and 60 other actors.

A hearing is set for March 26 – four days before the unions are skedded to count the votes in the merger referendum – over complaints that SAG hasn’t adhered to its own regulations in promulgating the merger and is required to perform an actuarial study of the results of merging the plans.

Carlson took specific issue with SAG statements in ballot materials that “merging the unions would only benefit plan participants” and “merger is the best way to protect our benefits.”

“These statements are patently untrue,” Carlson said. “They mislead SAG members by lulling them into the false belief that these lawyers could or did reach such a conclusion.”

The unions’ summary of the feasibility study – which contains opinions of seven attorneys with experience in the field – also notes that several hundred multiemployer pensions have merged over the past 25 years, and there is no legal obstacle to merging the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans. In addition, it says that multiemployer plan mergers do not pose any increased risk of loss of benefits.

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 qualifying for coverage under separate SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans. Carlson asserted that if the plans were to be merged, they would then be required to pay out more benefits without accruing additional income.

“This is a staggering financial burden which the plans cannot endure without either lowering benefits, increasing the qualification threshold or infusing additional funding into the plan,” Carlson said. “The financial burden that would result if the split earnings problem is ‘solved’ does not currently exist. This transparent outcome has been concealed from SAG members.”

SAG and AFTRA have touted the merger by telling members that the new SAG-AFTRA will have increased power at the negotiating table.

“Keep your benefits safe by making us all stronger,” the unions said in a recent postcard. “Bargaining strength is the foundation of all union protections including health and pension/retirement benefits.”

The lawsuit alleges that 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.”

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG’s deputy national exec director and general counsel, said Carlson’s declaration won’t carry any weight in the case. “The recent pleadings filed by the plaintiffs demonstrate, once again, that this case is completely without merit and we are confident that the judge will not interfere with the membership vote.”

First VP Ned Vaughn noted said he strongly disagrees with Carlson’s position.

“Since he helped defeat the last merger attempt in 2003, benefits have eroded year after year and members find it increasingly difficult to qualify as their contributions are split between two plans,” Vaughn said. “It is way past time to fix these problems and merger is undoubtedly the best approach. It increases our bargaining power, which is the key to the long-term health of our union and all the protections it can offer, including pension and health benefits. Unlike Bob Carlson, most members have taken the painful lesson of 2003 to heart and they’re going to opt for the strength of a merged union in 2012.”

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