Merged unions prepare for contract talks, leader elections

SAG-AFTRA, now six months old, has dialed down the hoopla since its raucous March 30 announcement of the merger between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

“Thankfully, we haven’t had any major surprises,” said co-president Ken Howard, who was SAG’s 25th and final president. “We’ve hit predictable bumps, but nothing unmanageable.”

Co-president Roberta Reardon, who campaigned avidly as AFTRA’s president for the merger, asserts that the 160,000 members remain overwhelmingly supportive of the notion that the combo will work.

“And even when there are hiccups they clearly have confidence in their leadership and staff that we will continue working in the good faith and solidarity shown throughout the merger process,” she said. “They know this is a game changing moment and they have embraced it with gusto.”

The profile of SAG-AFTRA will rise next year in three key areas:

— The union is now laying the groundwork for commercial contract talks with the ad industry in their first major negotiation under the SAG-AFTRA banner in what will be a test of the argument by merger proponents that the combined union will have more clout at the bargaining table. Talks will start in late January or early February for a successor contract to the current deal, which carries a March 31 expiration.

— The first post-merger Screen Actors Guild Awards will take place on Jan. 27, when the 19th edition of the kudos show is presented at the Los Angeles Shrine Exposition Center. The name won’t change to the SAG-AFTRA Awards as current TV contracts with TBS and TNT run through the January show — but don’t cover the 20th show in 2014.

— Current leaders of SAG-AFTRA — drawn from the two unions — will be up for election for the first time next summer, culminating with the union’s first-ever convention in September, 2013.

Thus far, notable developments have included the signing of a first-ever contract with record labels covering music video dancers; voluntary severance of about 80 slots at SAG-AFTRA staff, or about 15%; and the first meeting by trustees of the SAG and AFTRA health and retirement plans to explore the possibility of merging the separate plans. Merger backers had asserted that combining the unions would be a first step toward solving the problem of performers not qualifying for coverage under separate SAG and AFTRA plans.

Exec VP Ned Vaughn, a key architect of the merger, said the SAG-AFTRA leadership is necessarily focused, at the moment, on “inside baseball” questions.

“Most members don’t worry a lot about the smaller points of governance and other aspects of our internal culture – but it can be tempting for leaders to spend too much time and energy on these things,” he said. “Members care about solutions that work, solutions that genuinely benefit their working lives. That’s the big picture we must always keep in mind, and it’s where we should focus most of our energy.”

Howard — who has always presented himself as a pragmatist — said that the biggest challenge among those on the 110-member SAG-AFTRA board is dealing with the urge to view issues through the lenses of the legacy organizations.

“It’s understandable because people operated in those contexts for decades,” he added. But the fact is we are a new organization and the most important question is, ‘What works best?'”

National exec director David White told Variety that the ad contract talks, which cover $1 billion in annual earnings, are the biggest immediate task — along with keeping the new union operating in a seamless way, and connecting 33 offices around the country with what had been different phone systems, databases and other operational systems.

“Members would not have noticed most of these changes,” White said. “The daily life of a member and how they deal with the union has been relatively seamless.”

He noted that two weeks following the merger, SAG-AFTRA was able to send out 165,000 dues bills accurately from two different systems.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of effort by the staff to make this come off without a hitch,” he added. “People are coming in early, staying late and working on weekends.”

White also asserted that SAG-AFTRA is “laser-focused” on becoming as paperless as possible in all aspects — such as filling out forms on mobile devices and mobile apps. He also wants to improve processing times for member residual payments, which total well over 2 million payments per year.

“We are working in an industry-wide system that can only be described as insane,” White said. “While we have made progress through automation, it is still the case that every payroll company and studio payroll systems sends checks and data to us, using separate proprietary formats, and that variety forces SAG-AFTRA to be the most complex payroll company in the industry.”

Residuals will likely remain in the spotlight in coming months. More than a dozen members of SAG-AFTRA — including former SAG president Ed Asner — accused the union last month of misconduct in its handling of foreign levies and residuals and demanded a complete accounting. SAG-AFTRA strongly denied the allegations and reiterated its insistence that it has done nothing wrong.

In a year or so, SAG-AFTRA leaders will also face negotiations on a successor deal to the current master contracts covering features and primetime TV, which expire in June 2014. There’s also the possibility that SAG-AFTRA may try another merger with Actors Equity in a few more years.

“As a longtime Equity member, I’d love to see it happen,” Howard said. “That said, we’ve got lots of SAG-AFTRA work ahead.”

The Actors Equity Council unanimously endorsed the merger in February, becoming the first organization to back the SAG-AFTRA merger. Many of Equity’s 45,000 members also belong to SAG-AFTRA.

“I believe a merger with Equity would be a smart move,” Vauhgn said. “The more we can concentrate the bargaining power of professional performers, the better. With that said, we need to get through our convention next year, and a couple of major contract negotiations as well, before we starting work in that direction. But I’d love to see it happen and I hope we can talk with Equity leadership about in the future.”

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