SAG targets bigger war chest

Tech upgrade, infrastructure also concerns for Pisano

Actors, like every American, paid Uncle Sam on April 15th. On May 7, they’ll be asked to pay a little more — to Uncle Bob.

The national board of the Screen Actors Guild on Sunday voted overwhelmingly to seek member approval for the first dues increase in five years. Move is an attempt spearheaded by SAG CEO Bob Pisano to heal the union’s long-standing fiscal woes, invest in tech and infrastructure and — most importantly — create a war chest in advance of negotiations with producers later this fall.

If accepted, base dues for SAG membership would increase 30%, from $100 to $130 per year and the Guild’s initiation fee would rise from $1,356 to $2,085. Proposal would modestly increase dues on earnings up to $200,000 from 1.85% to 1.95%. Those actors earning more than $200,000 annually would face doubled work dues, from 0.50% to 1.0%, capped at $500,000 per annum.

Now headed to member referendum, the proposed hike would generate roughly $7.3 million in new revenues annually, placing the union on a more financially even keel after more than a decade listing in the red.

Prepping for talks

Moreover, the 80%-20% vote signals a resolve to get serious at the bargaining table with producers when contract talks resume, most likely this October.

“This proposal will help ensure SAG advocates from a position of maximum strength for our members,” said Pisano, adding “Going to the negotiating table with a war chest is a powerful weapon that we want to have in our arsenal headed into the fall negotiations.”

Lacking a strike fund last March, SAG extended its contract with producers for only the third time in its history. And while modest bumps in minimums were achieved, the nettlesome issue of residuals payments were left off the bargaining table. Instead, SAG and AFTRA sought to focus solely on securing modest wage and pension and health increases and avoiding a work slowdown. In the fall, when the second — and hotly contentious — phase of the negotiations resume, DVD, pay TV, made-for-basic cable and other residuals will again be front-and-center.

Both SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert and its treasurer James Cromwell said they expected members to see the extra $15 each dues period as “worthwhile” investment toward “a strong union in a pivotal time.”

Gilbert added, “We have a war chest, and we’re not afraid to use it.”

In the red

While operations have been streamlined and spending reduced by the Guild’s leadership recently, SAG has been operating in the red for most of the past dozen years. When he arrived on the job in 2001, Pisano stressed he would seek to reduce overhead before asking members to absorb additional costs. For example, in July 2002, seeking to stanch red ink, Pisano moved to close branch offices in Atlanta, Cleveland, Houston, Portland, St. Louis and Seattle.

The dues increase, while no doubt helpful to actors in the fall, would have been far more useful last spring, before negotiations ended in extension. But as Gilbert points out, with the union still smarting from a 2000 commercials strike and a expensive but failed consolidation attempt with AFTRA, “we were in no position to go to our members and ask them to ante up” until now.

Enhanced revenues also would allow the union to modernize neglected infrastructure and complete further cost-saving and member-service efforts, including work under way to enable members to track residuals and provide online casting information.

Referendum ballots will be mailed to all SAG members on May 7 and will be due back on May 28.

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