Robert Carlson removed in wake of objection to merger with AFTRA

Leaders of the Screen Actors Guild have removed a longtime trustee of the pension and health plans, two weeks after he objected to SAG’s proposed merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.

SAG’s Hollywood board voted Monday night to remove Robert Carlson, a trustee for the past seven years. The move came in the wake of a March 12 court declaration in which Carlson disputed SAG’s contention in pro-merger materials that merging the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans will be beneficial.

“I’m very disappointed,” Carlson told Variety on Tuesday. “I believe I was an effective trustee for many years and did my best to serve the participants.”

Carlson also said he may take legal action about the board’s move.

In response, SAG released a statement by First VP Ned Vaughn denying that the removal was motivated by Carlson’s position on merger.

“Robert Carlson has been a vocal merger opponent for years, but there was no need for us to address his service as a trustee until he took actions the board found inappropriate – including the unauthorized public disclosure of Plan data,” Vaughn said. “Hollywood board members considered his actions in detail and ultimately did not have confidence in his ability to continue as a trustee. The board will now begin the process of considering and naming a new appointee.”

The guild did not elaborate as to the specific disclosure. Carlson’s court declaration included the assertion that the SAG plan has $240 million in reserve to cover senior lifetime health costs while the AFTRA plan had none and said that if the plans were merged, a loss of benefits for SAG members would result. Carlson also asserted earlier this month on an anti-merger web site that the SAG Trustees were so dedicated to accomplishing the merger “that they are willing to ignore the truth.”

The unions are scheduled to count the votes Friday in the merger referendum. The federal judge handling the suit hasn’t issued a ruling.

The suit, filed by Martin Sheen and 60 other SAG members, alleges 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. In the court declaration in support of the Sheen suit, 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 in the filing. “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 multi-employer 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 multi-employer plan mergers do not pose any increased risk of loss of benefits.

The SAG and AFTRA health and retirement health plans are operated separately from the unions with boards composed of union and industry reps. The SAG plan covers about 40,000 participants and has assets of more than $2 billion, while the retirement plan pays pensions to an estimated 9,000 beneficiaries.

Merger backers assert 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. But Carlson asserted in the declaration 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 at the time. “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.

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.”

Vaughn noted on March 13 that he strongly disagreed with Carlson’s position.

“Since he (Carlson) 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 at the time. “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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