The marriage of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists has become official.
Members have voted to merge their unions, creating SAG-AFTRA with about 150,000 members, with SAG members approving the deal by an 82% margin and AFTRA members endorsing it by 86%. Results were announced Friday afternoon at SAG headquarters amid shouts of approval by supporters.
“Welcome to the birth of SAG-AFTRA,” said a julibilant Ken Howard, who’s campaigned for the combo as SAG president for the past three years.
AFTRA president Roberta Reardon said called the merger “a monumental achievement for the labor movement” that’s taken place amid the growth of anti-union sentiment in such states as Wisconsin.
Voter participation on the merger referendum — mailed a month ago — was strong, with 53% of the 105,386 ballots mailed out late last month by SAG returned. AFTRA received a 51.7% return rate on the 65,744 ballots it mailed to members.
The new SAG-AFTRA immediately replaces the two unions, with Howard and Reardon becoming co-presidents and a single SAG-AFTRA national board formed by combining the two national boards. The first elections will take place in the summer of 2013.
Howard and Reardon immediately adopted the shared titles of “SAG-AFTRA national co-president.”
While waiting for voting results, actors sang “We Shall overcome” with the words “SAG and AFTRA as one today.”
The merger culminates a profound shift in SAG politics over the past four years, with members turning away from supporting the confrontational strategies in favor of those espousing moderation and pragmatism. Merger supporters have stressed that combining the unions is a logical response to the trend of consolidation among entertainment conglomerates, along with pushing for the merger as a first step toward solving the problem of performers not qualifying for coverage under separate SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans.
The union of unions has been touted as giving actors more clout at the bargaining table in the coming years — though opponents such as former SAG persident Alan Rosenberg have contended that the merger push was aimed at empowering those who are overly accomodating to management. Rosenberg, who served as SAG president between 2005 and 2009, said he was “deeply saddened” by the results after watching the live-streamed news conference.
“SAG has expired at the age of 80 because our members have been mis-informed,” Rosenberg told Variety. “When it comes to increasing bargaining power, Roberta Reardon and Ken Howard intend to do exactly the opposite of what they’re saying. Our once-proud union has been busted — not by conglomerates but by their own leaders.”
Howard touted the vote as historic.
“Members of both unions have affirmed one of the most basic principles of unionism: Together we are stronger,” Howard said in a statement. “This merger, the result of months — really years — of planning, brings together the best elements of both unions and positions us well to thrive in the changing 21st-century media landscape.”
Reardon added: “The merger of these two unions is a huge victory for our members, and it is a monumental achievement for the labor movement.”
The majors have mostly stayed mum on the merger during the past year as Howard and Reardon campaigned throughout the country. On Friday the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers said in a short statement that it “looks forward to a cooperative relationship with the new performers’ organization as we endeavor to address the challenges of operating in an industry undergoing transformation.”
The merger required backing of 60% of those casting votes from each union. SAG members, who have strongly backed pro-merger candidates in recent years, turned down mergers in 1998 and 2003 — when the margin was 2% short of the required 60%.
The merger approval means SAG national exec director David White and AFTRA national exec Kim Roberts Hedgpeth will be co-chief exec directors of SAG-AFTRA. “Monday morning won’t look that different from Friday,” Roberts Hedgpeth said.
About 40,000 thesps had belonged to both unions. SAG-AFTRA members will receive a single dues bill in the near future rather than two bills.
White, who’s contracted into 2014 as the SAG topper, would not say Friday how soon the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans would merge. Those plans are operated separately from the unions with reps from the industry and the unions.
“We’re going to begin that process,” White said.
The DGA and WGA were quick to congratulate the thesp unions on the historic vote.
“This decision has been a long time in the making,” said DGA prexy Taylor Hackford in a statement issued minutes after the results of the referendum were announced. “Both guilds labored for many years to achieve this merger, believing that a single combined union would be stronger, more unified and more capable of representing the needs of its members in a changing entertainment landscape…We believe the merged guild will benefit not only actors but all who work in the entertainment community.”
The WGA East and WGA West also issued congratulatory statements. “It is our hope that the merged guild will be a source of increased power for its membership,” said WGA West president Chris Keyser.
The merger announcement came two days after anti-merger forces sustained a court defeat when a federal judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction to block the vote count. The suit alleged that the guild hadn’t adhered to its rules in sending out the proposal to members. Plaintiffs in the suit included board members Martin Sheen and Ed Harris and former presidents Kathleen Nolan, Ed Asner and Alan Rosenberg.
The merger had been endorsed by over 2,200 members, including George Clooney, Robert DeNiro, Danny DeVito and Tom Hanks.