Benefits the focus in contract talks

Thesp union members feel premium pinch

AFTRA prexy John Connolly has signaled that SAG and AFTRA are likely to seek significant boosts in employer health and retirement contributions in upcoming contract negotiations.

In a message to 70,000 AFTRA members, Connolly asserted that AFTRA leaders will be examining the bleak outlook for its health and retirement funds when they meet next month at the national convention in Nashville. As of July 1, soaring costs forced AFTRA members to start paying premiums for the first time on health insurance, with a $250 quarterly charge; members also saw the annual earnings requirement boosted from $7,500 to $10,000.

“We will address the grim situation in our health and retirement funds brought on by the ravages of health care cost inflation and agonizingly slow recovery from three years of wreckage in the investment climate, with an eye to significantly increasing employer contributions to the AFTRA H&R funds,” he said in the message.

The producer contribution to the SAG and AFTRA funds is set at 13.3% of earnings in the commercial and the film-TV contracts. Negotiations on the ad pact, which expires Oct. 29, will start in early September; the film-TV contract concludes next June 30.

The unions have not yet finalized their proposal, but in its current form, SAG and AFTRA plan to seek a relatively modest 4% annual increase.

SAG members have also been hit this year with the first-ever premiums and tightened eligibility, and nearly 10,000 of the 30,345 eligible thesps have opted out of the SAG-producers health plan this year after the imposition of the premiums. The SAG and AFTRA plans are operated separately, with each jointly administered by reps of the unions and by the studios and nets.

Connolly’s message also indicated that the convention will deal with AFTRA’s potentially shaky financial future. Earlier this year, as part of the campaign to merge with SAG, AFTRA admitted it was operating at a $2 million annual deficit on revenues of $25 million.

“We will rigorously calculate the level of resources required to succeed in achieving the ambitious goals we have set in organizing, bargaining and contract enforcement,” he said.

Connolly also said AFTRA’s leaders will address legislative activities and the fate of the more than 30 AFTRA local offices outside Los Angeles and New York. AFTRA national exec director Greg Hessinger told Daily Variety that none of AFTRA’s locals were scheduled to be closed immediately.

“While certain downsizing may be inevitable, the AFTRA national board has yet to evaluate the economic impact of the consolidation referendum results, and it is therefore inappropriate to speculate any further at this time,” he added.

In the wake of the narrow defeat of the SAG-AFTRA merger, Connolly also pledged that he will continue seek some kind of unified performers union. “The trend is inexorable, and the members’ intent is clear,” he added.

Speculation has risen that AFTRA could bypass bargaining with SAG and negotiate a discount deal with the ad industry in order to shore up its finances. But Hessinger said AFTRA will continue to observe the two-decade-old Phase I agreement that provided for joint negotiations in areas of shared jurisdiction.

“We are, of course, still operating under Phase I and will continue to do so absent any decision by either board of directors to the contrary,” he said. “We will continue to work toward our bargaining goals together, and the two national boards will in fact meet in joint video conference on July 20 to review and approve the commercials contracts proposal.”

Rumors have also emerged that a jurisdictional battle could emerge on soap operas, which have been AFTRA’s purview, but Hessinger downplayed such a possibility based on his experience during the merger campaign.

“If the consolidation campaign told us anything, it revealed how strongly the majority of members in both unions feel about SAG and AFTRA seeking ways to work together, particularly on behalf of members in similar work, e.g., television actors,” he said. “Of course, each union could go out and aggressively seek to organize new work opportunities by poaching across traditional lines of jurisdiction. But such action would disrespect and deny the very solidarity and cooperation that members want and which was evident throughout the consolidation campaign.”

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