Unions endorse successor plan

Will it finally be wedding bells for the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists by next May?

Leaders of SAG took a serious step toward merging with AFTRA on Saturday: SAG’s national board of directors voted unanimously to endorse a mission statement to create a single performers union along with creating a 13-member task force to work with AFTRA counterparts in developing a formal merger plan — to be submitted in January for approval by the two national boards.

That could lead to a member vote by this time next year by the 120,000 members of SAG and the 70,000 members of AFTRA — with 45,000 members belonging to both. But merging SAG and AFTRA isn’t a slam dunk, particularly among the 120,000 members on the SAG side, despite arguments that a combined union would be stronger and resolve longstanding jurisdictional problems.

Approval requires a 60% super-majority from those voting in both unions. And SAG members rebuffed similar efforts in 1998 and 2003 amid concerns that a merger would cause SAG to lose its unique character as an actors union.

SAG’s Ken Howard — whose signature issue for the past two years has been merger — contended Saturday that actors want to merge.

“The message from SAG and AFTRA members across the country has been clear — they want this done as soon as possible,” he said. “If our boards approve the merger plan in January, our members will make the final decision through a referendum vote less than a year from now.”

AFTRA’s board is set to meet May 14 to approve the creation of an AFTRA 13-member task force, triggering the process of working out potentially complicated details such as the name of the combined union, its dues structure, membership requirements, election rules and who will become the new executive director. The name of the surviving union could be a key decision as the moniker chosen in 2003 — the Alliance of International Media Artists or AIMA — was derided and may have contributed to the measure’s defeat.

The merger issue has massively altered the political dynamics of SAG over the past three years as the self-styled moderates of Unite For Strength have displaced the self-styled progressives of Membership First.

UFS has 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 National Secretary Treasurer Amy Aquino, one of the key UFS tacticians, said Saturday, “Not only will creation of one union increase our bargaining leverage, it will allow us to pool our resources to protect our members by actively enforcing contracts and organizing new work.”

The rancor between SAG and AFTRA during 2007 and 2008, when Membership First controlled the SAG board, led to separate negotiations with the majors between the two unions. SAG’s talks were prolonged for more than a year, allowing AFTRA to cut a deal and expand its coverage of primetime skeins that would otherwise likely have been done under SAG contracts.

Membership First campaigned last year on a platform of supporting a merger, but only if the new union were limited to actors and excluded the broadcasters, journalists and recording artists now covered by AFTRA. That message fell flat among SAG members as the 28-candidate Membership First slate failed to win a single national board seat, leaving the faction with only nine seats on the 71-member panel.

Several of those remaining Membership First reps were not in attendance at Saturday’s meeting. But Alan Rosenberg, who served as SAG president for two terms from 2005-09, told Variety that he continues to disagree that a merger with AFTRA will automatically make SAG stronger, citing his disappointment over the last round of contract negotiations, in which SAG and AFTRA negotiated jointly.

Rosenberg noted that the deal included no significant advances in new media and elimination of the first-class travel requirement for actors required to fly to sets. “Whatever the members want is what they should have but they should also be told the truth,” Rosenberg said. “I don’t believe it’s AFTRA’s intention or Unite For Strength’s intention to be strong at the negotiating table. Instead, they want to protect employers and stop the threat of a strike forever.”

Howard and his AFTRA counterpart Roberta Reardon have campaigned aggressively for the merger 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 over a dozen meetings this year with invited members of both unions in a series of “listening tour” confabs to discuss the merger. 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.