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AFTRA: Time to create a national union

Union officers call for combination with SAG

AFTRA’s top officers are making a renewed push for a merger with SAG to create a single performers union with national scope.

In a two-page letter to members in the spring edition of AFTRA Magazine, the union’s five top officers lay out a case for why SAG and AFTRA need to join forces to deal with dramatic marketplace changes and to better serve their respective members. Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have made attempts to merge in the past, most recently in 2003, but SAG members ultimately rejected the idea in a referendum vote.

“Some see ‘merger’ mainly as a way to solve the very real problems posed by paying dues to multiple unions, contributing to multiple health and retirement plans and wasting resources on redundant administrative processes,” read the letter signed by AFTRA national prexy Roberta Reardon, national first vp Bob Edwards and three others.

“As longtime working members of multiple unions, we also yearn for the streamlined efficiencies that would make each of our individual professional lives easier to manage and less costly. But as welcome as these benefits may be, they are not the reason to create a new organization. We should do it for one reason and one reason only: to build power.”

SAG national prexy Ken Howard gave a thumbs-up to the AFTRA message, calling the proposal to join forces “an idea whose time has come.”

Although SAG and AFTRA have a history of jointly negotiating key contracts with the studios, some SAG members have been vehemently opposed to any kind of merger with AFTRA because of criticism that AFTRA has accepted lower wages and less beneficial working terms for actors and performers than SAG. In 2008, there was open warfare between SAG and AFTRA as the two negotiated separate contracts for primetime TV work for the first time in nearly 30 years.

But last year, the tenor among SAG leaders changed as Howard ran for office on a platform of improving cooperation with AFTRA. Howard and the slate of board members recently elected to SAG have been open about their desire over the long term to explore the possibility of consolidation with AFTRA, though that remains a controversial topic among SAG members.

At present, there’s been no formal steps taken between SAG and AFTRA to take another run at merging. But clearly the letter is an effort to start the conversation among union members.

SAG is the larger of the two unions with about 120,000 members; AFTRA has more than 70,000 members. The two unions have at least 50,000 joint members.

The AFTRA letter emphasized that the prospective combination would have to create an org focused on repping performers around the country working in a range of media.

“Union power starts with organizing, continues with strong bargaining and, when the timing is right, it includes exploring the creation of a new national union that serves those missions. It culminates in a working world that is all union, all the time, for all media professionals all around the country — in large and small markets alike,” the AFTRA officers wrote.

SAG’s top elected honcho concurs.

“I’m delighted to see AFTRA’s leadership speak out forcefully about something that I and other SAG leaders so strongly support.Joining SAG and AFTRA to create a single union is essential to performers maximizing their power,” Howard said in a statement late Tuesday.

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