The gloves have come off in the debate over the SAG-AFTRA merger, with the bashing that often takes place in Screen Actors Guild elections.

With ballots now in hands of members, both sides have been lobbing accusations of selling out to management and lying to members. At issue is the creation of a new umbrella, Alliance of Intl. Media Artists, which would sport affiliates for actors, broadcasters and recording artists. At least 60% of voters in each union must approve for the deal to go through.

Fear and falsehoods

Advocates of the deal, dubbed a “partnership for power,” have contended that it will give actors more clout in negotiations and solve jurisdictional disputes. They have also been blasting their opponents, asserting in a recent message: “Misinformation from consolidation opponents just keeps coming. More management positioning. More false charges. More misleading claims.”

And SAG board members Richard Dreyfuss and Mike Farrell issued a similar attack in a recent message: “Some will object, we assume, to anything, but there has been no positive alternative proposed, only an incredibly negative campaign to inspire people’s fear and distrust of the union leadership.”

Power and priorities

The SaveSAG opponents have portrayed the plan as a slicker version of the 1999 proposal that SAG members voted down and have asserted that actors will have less power under the new plan due to the new bureaucracy. SAG staff has been enlisted to push the plan to members, triggering complaints that the guild’s resources should be employed on contract enforcement and services.

SaveSAG has also hammered at the refusal of leaders to present both sides of the issue, asserting recently, “They’re afraid that if you have too much information, you’ll vote no.”

The no side has also asserted that the jurisdictional dispute over TV shows shot on digital has been artificially manufactured as a pretext by union staffs to drive the merger campaign. “Of course, that issue could easily be resolved by the Natl. Labor Relations Board, once and for all,” said Arthur Fox, former NLRB counsel, in a legal opinion.

But SAG said it has considered such an approach and concluded that it was “dangerous and foolhardy.” And it cited the assertion by outside attorneys George Cohen and Jeff Freund that such a procedure would have to be conducted on an employer-by-employer basis.

“Thus, any party invoking that procedure to resolve jurisdictional disputes throughout the entertainment industry necessarily would confront a very lengthy, costly, complex and highly contentious litigation involving not only lawyers for the two competing unions, but also a predictable cadre of corporate lawyers for each of the employers,” they said.

Fox has also asserted SAG’s autonomy will disappear and be given to AIMA and its exec director. “Money is the tail that wags the dog,” he added. “Pragmatically speaking, whoever controls the money and has the power to hire, fire and supervise staff, advisers and legal counsel is all-powerful.”

SAG’s 350 employees were notified last week that they would become employees of AIMA on July 2 if the deal is approved.

Pension question

The issue of merging SAG’s and AFTRA’s health and pension plans also remains particularly hot. Opponents note that management trustees of the SAG plan believe such a step is “not in the best interest of participants,” but proponents have hit back by asserting that those who oppose such a step are management dupes.

The latest attacks reflect SAG’s long-running internal battles pitting those who favor an activist approach, led by SAG treasurer Kent McCord, against those such as SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert who advocate pragmatism and avoid confrontation. A recent email from board member Mitch Ryan blamed those on the no side for unnecessarily prolonging the six-month strike against advertisers in 2000; opponents have criticized Gilbert’s support for easing ownership rules for talent agencies through a revamped master franchise agreement, a measure subsequently voted down by SAG members last year.

Supporters will hold a news conference today at SAG headquarters.