The urge to merge is growing stronger.
The timetable for a formal plan to merge the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists will probably emerge when SAG’s national board holds its plenary meeting on April 30 and May 1.
At this point, no timetable is set for a vote by members of the two performers unions, but AFTRA president Roberta Reardon and SAG prexy Ken Howard have been laying the groundwork for the past year — first by setting up a “presidents forum” to informally establish a “common vision” for a single union and then by holding about a dozen meetings this year with invited members of both unions in a series of “listening tour” confabs to discuss merger.
The presidents have held meetings in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
“It’s been extremely gratifying to hear from members across the country — to understand their needs and expectations for a combined union,” Howard told Variety. “The overriding response has been that we need to unite SAG and AFTRA as soon as possible, and I certainly agree. We’re making good progress in the presidents forum, and I’m looking forward to taking the next step with our national board at the end of April.”
Reardon told Variety that the listening tour will continue over the next several months; next up: San Francisco in April.
“The response continues to be overwhelmingly positive from everyone who’s attending,” she said. “For us, the next key meeting is May 14, when AFTRA’s national board will receive recommendations from the task force. That’s when we’ll start getting down to the details.”
At that point, if both boards direct that a formal plan should be created, it will be a major step toward merging the unions — since the formal plan is what members would ultimately vote upon.
Reardon said the concerns expressed by members include the ongoing shift of work to non-union producers and contributing to separate pension and health funds.
Merger supporters have contended that split jurisdiction between SAG and AFTRA in primetime is leading to actors being unable to meet earnings thresholds to qualify for the health plans. They also say a combined union would run more efficiently and have more bargaining clout.
SAG has 120,000 actors as members and AFTRA 70,000, including broadcasters and singers; about 45,000 thesps are dual members.
Two previous attempts to persuade SAG members to support merging have been turned away due to concerns such as SAG losing its identity as an actors union and the difficulties of combining the pension and health plans. The name chosen for the 2003 merger attempt — the Alliance of Intl. Media Artists — failed to gain much traction before the SAG vote fell just short of the required 60% support level.
Howard and Reardon have said that leaders are nowhere near deciding on a name for the combined union and such decisions will be driven by member feedback. Reardon has also said there would be no effort to combine the pension and health plans — which are operated separately from the unions and overseen by reps of the unions and the employers — prior to a merger vote.
AFTRA angrily split from SAG in 2008 over jurisdictional beefs and negotiated its own primetime deal for the first time in three decades. Under Howard, SAG has mended fences and the two unions negotiated jointly for seven weeks last fall on a successor primetime-feature deal.
The vast majority of TV pilots have signed with AFTRA rather than SAG over the past three seasons as SAG’s long-standing hold on primetime work continues to erode, even though SAG’s elected leadership has become increasingly moderate and less confrontational.
Producers have shunned SAG on signing nearly all new primetime shows following SAG’s unsuccessful strategy in 2008 to hold out for a better deal on its master contract for nearly a year.
Opponents have grown frustrated over what they perceive to be SAG’s lack of effort to sign primetime shows shot on digital and three members filed charges last year with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that SAG’s inaction represented a violation of its duty to represent members. The NLRB rejected the charges, and the trio is appealing that ruling.