The SAG and AFTRA merger referendum will close Tuesday following a typically raucous campaign highlighting deep divisions among thesps on key issues.

Whichever side wins, SAG will continue to distinguish itself as Hollywood’s least unified union by far. That’s a potentially troublesome situation for SAG and AFTRA as they head into negotiations on the commercials pact, expiring Oct. 29, and the film-TV contract, up in July 2004.

Merger ballots will be counted at the Radisson Wilshire Plaza Hotel in Los Angeles in three separate rooms for the three ballots — SAG-only, AFTRA-only and those belonging to both. At least 60% of voters from both unions must approve the proposal for it to go through. If voted up, a new Alliance of Intl. Media Artists will be formed with affiliates for actors, broadcasters and recording artists.

Underscoring the rancor within SAG, board member Valerie Harper has resigned from the tellers committee that rules on voter intent on disputed ballots. She contended she was the only person on the seven-member panel to oppose the merger and argued that the committee should have been composed equally of reps from both sides, as in last year’s referendum over a revamped master franchise agreement.

“In no way do I want to impugn the integrity of the tellers committee members, but the no voters need to be represented equally,” Harper told Daily Variety. “I am resigning because I do not want to give credibility to a flawed process. The structure of the committee should be above reproach.”

SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert called Harper’s move “puzzling,” asserting Harper had not expressed her reservations when the rules were approved, while Harper insisted she had not been aware that she had been named to the panel until two weeks ago. “It is impossible to reconcile her last-minute abdication with her professed concern for fairness and accuracy of the process that she was uniquely empowered to oversee,” Gilbert said in a statement.

The SAG tellers committee is composed of William Schallert as chair along with Maureen Donnelly, Sam Freed, Virginia Hawkins, Peter Onorati and Paul Petersen.

Combo fears

Proponents claim that combining SAG and AFTRA will lead to greater bargaining clout and operating efficiencies and resolve jurisdictional disputes; opponents argue that SAG would be a shell under the new structure and that the new org would be less responsive to the needs of actors. Both sides have been passionate and often highly critical of each other, even in the final days of balloting and even among high-profile members.

There have been no official debates, and the few public forums have been marked by hostility, as was the case during a radio debate between merger backer and first VP Mike Farrell and treasurer Kent McCord, who heads the Save SAG opposition.

“Do I think there is unreasonable bullshit in the air?” asked pro-merger SAG board member Richard Dreyfuss in a recent message. “Yes, and it’s poisoned our ability to think or make decisions. The questions being asked have all been answered, and in some strange insistent way the answers are being ignored and the questions stated in a louder and angrier way as if the answers given are fraudulent and unheard.”

Dreyfuss also said the actors involved in SAG politics are “overzealous, impatient and intolerant” and said he has been telling them to be calm and more tolerant and not to be angry.

“I sound like some Methodist minister and now I find I’m losing my temper just like everyone else,” said the thesp, who was elected in 2000. “It’s too bad, because actors seem to have forgotten how well we’ve taken care of each other through the union.”

Only 46% of SAG voters endorsed a 1999 merger proposal, sending it to defeat.

“I’ve heard it said that if SAG were to vote on immortality, 20% of the membership would vote against it,” said thesp Stephen Collins. “It’s easier to destroy than to build, it’s easier to say no than to say yes.”

Asner’s anger

Former SAG prexy Ed Asner weighed in last week with a blast at proponents: “No matter how lofty the ideals may be of the pro-merger forces, their conduct in this election has been reprehensible. While busily calling the anti-merger forces ‘disappointed fanatics,’ the pro-merger forces have become fanatics themselves.”

Asner criticized the use of SAG funds to pay for mailings, telephone polls on the SAG phone lines and including “pro-merger propaganda” from both SAG and AFTRA in the same envelope that contains the ballots.

“Are there no laws, no morals?,” he asked. “Our union has sold its soul trying to gain this merger.”

Some insiders believe SAG’s national board could have cooled off the dispute had it agreed in April to include a “minority report” in its official communication with SAG members. The panel was not required to do so since less than 25% of the board voted against the deal, but the refusal has grated opponents.

SAG eventually posted the minority report on its “Partnership for Power” Web site but included extensive and derisive rebuttal within the text.

Another sticking point has been the move by the SAG and AFTRA boards to ask trustees of the unions’ health and pension plans — operated independently, with half the reps from industry and the rest from the unions — to lay the groundwork for merging the two plans. Management trustees of the SAG health plan say that merging with the AFTRA plan is not in the best interests of the SAG participants — a declaration that was labeled by merger proponents as meddling in union politics, prompting a sharp denial by those trustees.

AFTRA also disclosed that ballot packages sent to approximately 2,700 AFTRA-only members were addressed incorrectly with a combination of the member’s legal last name and their professional first name.

“Most of these members received their ballots even with the error on the labels, but to make sure that every eligible AFTRA member had their opportunity to vote, we instructed Integrity Voting Systems to send replacement ballot packets by overnight mail to all members affected,” spokeswoman Jayne Wallace said.

Wallace said the replacement ballots were sent out June 14 but emphasized that only one ballot per member will be counted. AFTRA’s tellers committee includes Susan Boyd, Dave Browde, Jason George, Janette Gautier, Dan Ingram, Dick Kay, Matt Kimbrough, Russell McConnell and Shelby Scott.

Should the “consolidation and affiliation” plan be voted up, SAG and AFTRA would continue to operate with the current officers and boards in place until sometime before July 2004, when the new structure would be put into place. If the merger is voted down, SAG would hold its own election with petitions due July 24, ballots mailed Aug. 26 and results announced Sept. 23.

SAG’s last national election was a contentious affair as SAG’s election committee decided in January 2002 to throw out the results due to rule violations by SAG staff and Sequoia Pacific, the company handling the balloting. The rerun election results were the same, however, with Melissa Gilbert defeating Harper and McCord and Elliott Gould winning slots as secretary and treasurer, respectively.