Inside Move: Merge or dirge for unions?

SAG, AFTRA face the music if tie-up fails to pass

With members set to begin voting June 9 on the merger of SAG and AFTRA, the mantra of union chieftains Bob Pisano and Greg Hessinger is unequivocal:

“Failure is not an option.”

The two toppers cite plenty of support for the tie-up at recent member confabs, but what if thesps stray from the script at the last minute? After all, a prior merger attempt died in 1999 when it failed to get the necessary 60% approval from SAG voters.

Pisano and Hessinger admit that a “no” vote this time around would be disastrous.

“In the unlikely event that consolidation fails, we would have to assess our options,” Pisano says. “It would be expensive, painful and not in the best interests of members. And we would be acting independently of AFTRA.”

Indeed, among the conflicts likely to flare up first if the merger is voted down is the jurisdictional tempest over TV shows shot digitally. The unions first clashed a year ago on the issue but have since been making deals on a show-by-show basis — usually resulting in SAG jurisdiction at the lower AFTRA rates. A “no” vote on the merger would renew the conflict.

More ominously, both SAG and AFTRA could be hit hard financially if they fail to integrate. SAG board member James Cromwell (“Babe”) asserts both unions are “in crisis” due to operating deficits.

That means SAG and AFTRA would have to cut costs further, with AFTRA probably forced to close branches.

Other potential fallout:

  • The defeat would be blamed by the rest of SAG on its Hollywood members and lead to a split into SAG East in New York and SAG West; the two branches would likely undercut each other in contracts to attract production to their respective regions.

  • The unmistakable message to management would be that SAG members simply don’t want to follow their leaders. That would severely limit the leverage SAG and AFTRA possess when they begin bargaining on a commercials contract in September and a film-TV contract next spring.

But that last scenario is also the best source for optimism by merger backers.

“What we hear loud and clear from members is that they fully support this because they recognize the need for increased strength at the bargaining table,” Pisano says.

Cromwell agrees. “I believe they will realize that ‘yes’ is the only realistic vote,” he says.

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