SAG-AFTRA Staying Low Key 1-Year Mark

Opposition remaining dialed down for now

SAG-AFTRA has kept hype and hoopla to minimum since its rowdy announcement of the merger between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists a year ago.

The once-raucous opposition from SAG members has largely vanished.

“I’m not sure what anyone would oppose at this point,” noted co-president Ken Howard who was SAG’s 25th and final president. “We’re certainly not going back to being divided. As with any organization, there will sometimes be disagreements on issues, but it’s clearly much better for us to discuss those under one roof.”

Co-president Roberta Reardon, who campaigned avidly as AFTRA’s president for the combo, asserted that the disappearance of dissent isn’t a factor in how leaders operate.

“Whether or not there are opposition voices doesn’t affect how we do our job of representing the membership,” she pointed out. “We have the opportunity to focus on the future without having to factor in the presence of another union in the same areas.”

This isn’t to say that all 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members are in lockstep. Peaches Johnson, a former Los Angeles board member, is troubled by what she perceives as a sharp hike in nonunion castings.

“I don’t think people respect SAG-AFTRA in the same way that they did SAG,” she said. “I’ve had only three auditions this year and I think it’s because I absolutely refuse to work non-union.”

The guild has kept a low profile in its commercial contract talks with the ad industry, with a news blackout since talks started Feb. 14. It’s the first major negotiation under the SAG-AFTRA banner — and a test of the argument by merger proponents that the combined union will have more clout for a successor contract to the current deal, which carries an April 7 expiration.

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. Howard and Reardon, who were each elected two years ago, have refused to comment on whether they’ll seek election to a SAG-AFTRA slot.

No signs of an opposition slate have yet emerged, as many former opponents have disengaged, such as Brian Hamilton, a former SAG board member who runs the still-active SAG Actor website.

“Many of us who were heavily involved have decided to step back and see if the leaders can deliver,” he noted. “I want the union to succeed but the merger hasn’t translated into more jobs yet.”

William Daniels, who led SAG on a high-profile six-month commercials strike in 2000 as its president, says he’s largely out of touch with the new union. “I gave five years as a president and board member; then I had to get back to work on my career,” he explained.

Hamilton also points out that members are disappointed over a seeming lack of movement on merging the SAG and AFTRA health and retirement plans — a key promise by merger proponents. National exec director David White insisted that steady progress has occurred.

“Any progress we may make in this area cannot usually be done on a public stage, so it won’t be visible to most non-trustees,” White noted. “It involves a complicated (and usually confidential) assessment of applicable law, actuarial numbers, trust documents and collective bargaining agreements — all with an eye toward what is best for the participants of each Plan.”

Howard asserted that strong enforcement of contracts remains a primary issue for members, along with good contracts, increasing work opportunities, and access to good benefits. “What’s changed is that we can now focus entirely on delivering what our members need, rather than being hampered by competition between two unions,” he added.

The merger had been voted down in 1999 and 2003 by SAG members. A year ago, merger opponents went unsuccessfully to federal court to block the combo on grounds that SAG had not performed an audit of the impact of combining the pension and health plans and members largely ignored that objection. The merger was approved on March 30, 2012 with 82% support from SAG members who voted along with 86% of AFTRA members.

Exec VP Ned Vaughn, a key architect of the merger, believes the current lack of opposition dates back to that vote.

“The overwhelming approval a year ago set the tone – it’s pretty difficult to keep opposing something that’s strongly supported throughout the membership,” he noted. “Who in the world wants to go back to paying for two separate organizations to compete with each other? Frankly, I’ve heard from some merger opponents who are very glad we are now in one union, even if they wanted it to come about in a different way.”

The SAG-AFTRA national board — currrently at 110 members as a result of combining the SAG and AFTRA boards — will move toward what it calls a “permanent governance structure” for next September with 70 board seats allotted for the 25 locals with Los Angeles having 28 seats and New York with 16. The 10 national officers also serve on the SAG-AFTRA national board bringing its total size to 80.

The new election structure will begin to go into effect between May and August, when the contests for president, secretary-treasurer and most board members will take place. An exec VP and seven other VPs will be elected at a convention in September.

SAG elections were often volatile affairs but the final 2011 contest was a mild one as the self-styled progressives in the Membership First faction did not enter a slate after being defeated convincingly by the self-described moderate faction — which avidly pursued merger — in the previous two years. Membership First, which held a majority between 2005 and 2009, currently has about 10 members on the SAG-AFTRA national board, most notably Scott Bakula, Frances Fisher, Elliott Gould, Ed Harris, Anne-Marie Johnson and Martin Sheen.

SAG-AFTRA went through a voluntary severance last year of about 80 slots or 15% of staff. In its LM-2 report filed in July with the U.S. Dept. of Labor, SAG-AFTRA said it had taken in $4.315 million as dues last April, its first month as a new union as part of $12.028 million in receipts while expenses totaled $13.581 million.

That April monthly dues figure would equate to about $52 million annually. SAG’s CFO projected last March that the new union would bring in $6 million monthly — in the same ballpark as the combined $70.8 million in dues that SAG and AFTRA took in during their last 11 months ($43.9 million for SAG, $26.8 million for AFTRA). White said the new union leaders are focused on the new union’s financial health and the specifics of execution.

“As to our financial reporting, we’re using this first year to take a hard look at the best practices of both legacy unions – and at those practices that may need to change,” White noted. “The longer process of building a unified, nationwide culture from two very different organizations will take time, smart strategy and persistent effort. We’re engaged in this process as we speak, and making steady progress. Our goal is to create a culture that is built to last and rests upon shared values that reflect the best of our past and point towards the promise of our future. We are prepared to take the time to do this right, and we are off to a great start.”

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