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HOLLYWOOD — SAG and AFTRA’s top execs have ramped up efforts in recent weeks to lay the groundwork for a merger between the nation’s leading performers unions.

The toppers have not yet worked out details of how to proceed but, according to insiders, they are exploring a variety of scenarios with a specific goal of hammering out a merger plan that will be palatable to the 98,000 members of SAG and the 65,000 members of AFTRA.

The secret talks among execs have been taking place at the same time that two panels of elected union leaders have been holding the first summit meetings over jurisdiction since 1999. The two committees — SAG’s AFTRA Relations Task Force and AFTRA’s Strategic Alliances Committee — met for three days in November and four days in December; they begin three more days of meetings today in Los Angeles.

SAG and AFTRA have refused to disclose details about the substance of the summit meetings or staff meetings to prep for the confabs. When asked whether a merger is being considered in those staff discussions, SAG spokeswoman Ilyanne Kichaven replied, “All possibilities are being discussed, but no recommendations or conclusions have been reached.”

Bottom-line boost

Arguments for a merger are likely to stress the prospect of cost savings for the financially squeezed orgs, the disappearance of messy jurisdictional fights (such as last year’s dispute over Fox shows) and increased clout at the bargaining table and at the legislative level.

When SAG members spurned a merger proposal in 1999 — with only 46% supporting, well short of the required 60% approval — the anti-merger forces highlighted a proposed dues increase, the difficulties of merging the unions’ pension and health plans, the prospect of SAG’s loss of identity as an actors union once it included broadcasters and the probability of at least 25,000 new people competing for SAG jobs.

Execs and leaders at both unions had strongly supported the merger.

Scale disparity

Merger opponents are likely to point out that combining the unions could mean that non-star thesps will be stuck with lower pay. When SAG settled its jurisdictional fight with AFTRA last year, it accepted the far lower AFTRA pay scale for TV performers with less than six lines in non-network shows.

AFTRA’s members backed the 1999 merger with 67% support. About 40,000 thesps are dual members of SAG and AFTRA.

SAG and AFTRA agreed in 1981 to jointly negotiate contracts for film, primetime TV, cable, pay TV, public TV, commercials and industrial/educational under a “Phase One” agreement that included provisions that a merger be studied. Most of the work under the jointly negotiated pacts is handled by SAG, while the key AFTRA-only contracts cover broadcasters, newscasters, DJs and recording artists.

The sentiments of SAG members toward making a major change can be difficult to gauge. Guild CEO Bob Pisano and prexy Melissa Gilbert campaigned actively last year for approval of a proposed revamp of the master franchise agreement but members spurned that deal over concerns about the easing of ownership restriction on talent agencies.

That vote has left SAG without oversight of major talent agencies for the past nine months.