Third attempt at union between unions

Will the third time be a charm for merging the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists?

The oft-debated issue is now in the hands of members following approvals by the national boards, with 87% of SAG’s panel backing the proposal Friday and 94% of AFTRA’s doing the same on Saturday.

The proposal goes to a vote by SAG and AFTRA members starting Feb. 27, with tabulation on March 30 — although the official campaign to merge is expected to start in the next few days. Even though not required to do so, both boards agreed to allow inclusion of opposition statements in the balloting materials.

The boards have also agreed to suspend the unions’ 2008 “nondisparagement” agreement, which barred elected reps of each union from making any public statements that were disparaging toward the other. SAG had agreed to the pact to patch up its relationship with AFTRA after AFTRA had split off from SAG in the 2008 primetime negotiations.

The merger proposal will be sent to 120,000 SAG members and 70,000 AFTRA members, who include actors, broadcasters, DJs, singers and dancers. To pass, the referendum would need a 60% approval margin from both orgs among votes cast.

The 45,000 thesps who belong to both SAG and AFTRA will receive two ballots, one for each union. SAG members defeated merger proposals in 1999 and 2003 while AFTRA members supported both.

Though many details haven’t been disclosed yet, some key points have emerged:

•The SAG name will survive and the combined union will be SAG-AFTRA. In 2003, the merged union would have been called the Alliance of Intl. Media Artists, which may have been a factor in the narrow defeat of the measure when 42% of SAG members casting ballots rejected the proposal.

•SAG’s annual elections will be replaced by contests taking place every two years, combining SAG’s direct voting structure with AFTRA’s national convention structure. The SAG-AFTRA president will be elected directly.

•AFTRA’s current policy allowing broadcast members to work at non-union locations will remain intact.

SAG president Ken Howard and AFTRA president Roberta Reardon, who have pressed the issue relentlessly over the past three years, have been touting the themes that a combined union would be more powerful, remove jurisdictional overlaps and lay the groundwork for combining the health and retirement plans. However, if the merger passes, there’s no guarantee that the industry trustees will support merging the SAG and AFTRA plans.

Merger backers will undoubtedly bring out high-profile endorsers. In 2003, that list included Angela Bassett, Jackson Browne, Nicolas Cage, Kevin Costner, George Clooney, Tom Hanks, Marlee Matlin, Willie Nelson and Kevin Spacey.

Merger opponents, who have lost influence in recent years, have contended that a merger won’t make for a stronger union and point out that SAG and AFTRA have negotiated jointly for three decades — except for the 2008 primetime TV negotiations, when AFTRA split off.

AFTRA’s board also announced Saturday that its board had approved a three-year successor contract on its Network Television Code — its largest contract, with $250 million in annual earnings. Ratification ballots go out Monday with a return date of Feb. 22.

The key part of the deal, announced Dec. 9, is a hike in employer contributions to the AFTRA Health and Retirement Funds from 15.5% to 16.5%. If ratified by the AFTRA members, the agreement will apply retroactively to Nov. 16, 2011, and run through Nov. 15, 2014.

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