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Thesps talk merger on red carpet

Joining two unions hot topic at SAG Awards

It’s about time. That was the prevailing sentiment on the SAG Awards’ red carpet about the big question that will soon be sent on a ballot to about 140,000 performers: Should SAG and AFTRA merge?

Numerous thesps at the 18th annual SAG Awards were more than happy to take a moment out from kudos season chit-chat outside the Shrine Auditorium to talk about why there’s such urgency for the unions to join forces.

“It’s important to do,” said George Clooney, citing the growth of digital production in TV and film.

“We gotta merge, man,” said Rainn Wilson. “It’s ludicrous to have two actors unions.”

Armie Hammer was among many who cited the simple strength-in-numbers benefit.

“To have some sort of schism between people who are doing the same thing is crazy,” he said. “Why don’t we all get on the same page?”

Giancarlo Esposito called it “a must — it’s advantageous to all of the people involved.”

Ty Burrell observed that “even in my tiny brain I can see that we’ve been without some leverage because we’ve been split.”

The long-standing jurisdictional divide gives SAG the authority on projects produced on film, while digital productions can choose to go with SAG or AFTRA. During the past few years, after SAG tussled on contract issues with the majors, an overwhelming majority of new TV series opted for AFTRA contracts rather than SAG. That shift has hurt SAG in terms of clout and revenue.

“As the (industry) is going more and more digital, there’s a very real possibility that AFTRA could become the dominant union, so (a merger) has to happen,” Clooney said. “You don’t want actors to suffer” because of decades-old union turf wars, he said.

The merger proposal approved this weekend by the boards of SAG and AFTRA will be sent out for the membership vote on Feb. 27. It requires a 60% approval margin of ballots cast by both unions. SAG members have defeated the last two merger efforts, in 1998 and 2003.

SAG staffers on the red carpet plugged the merger with lapel pins proclaiming “SAG-AFTRA One Union.”

“They’re still wet,” SAG prexy Ken Howard joked.

James Cromwell, who was a SAG officer in 2003, said he was hopeful that this time around the opposition “has cooled down” and that “the membership has wised up and understands how much money we’ve lost” to AFTRA in recent years.

“If you have two unions representing the same actor for some job, both of them are going to get screwed,” Cromwell said. “The (employer) is going to play one off the other.”

There’s a big bread-and-butter issue for actors who struggle to make enough money to qualify for health and pension benefits. When an actor’s work is divided between SAG and AFTRA contracts, it’s even harder for them to earn enough to meet eligibility requirements under either union’s plan.

“The more people that we can have paying into (a single) health and pension plan the better,” said Glenn Close. “The more united we can be, the more we can look out for each other. … There’s more upside than downside” to a merger, she said.

Opposition to the merger in the recent past has centered on SAG member concerns that its pension and health plans would be diluted by the addition of AFTRA’s non-thesp members, such as disc jockeys, newscasters and weathercasters, and session musicians. There’s also long been criticism among SAG members that AFTRA has been willing to strike less advantageous deals with the networks and the majors in terms of compensation and residual payments.

Scott Bakula, a former SAG board member, said he has “mixed feelings” about a merger but thinks that it’s time has come. “I don’t see any reason why it’s not going to happen,” he said.

There’s “a lot to digest” in the details of the proposal and there’s still a question of “how it’s going to be received by members.” But fundamentally, actors are hurt by the divide as it stands now. “We should all be in the same boat,” he said. “We need to work together.”

Howard made a triumphant statement during the kudocast about the momentum behind the merger, which he had vowed to bring to the membership a year ago during the 2011 SAG Awards telecast. He also gave an on-air shout out to his AFTRA counterpart, Roberta Reardon, who stood and blew him a kiss from her table.

Earlier, Howard told Variety on the red carpet that working out the details of such issues as how to mesh the two unions’ health and pension plans ultimately “were not as hard as you might think.” His biggest fear now is that members will feel that approval is a sure thing and not bother to vote, which could cost them the 60% margin needed for passage.

“It’s not a fait accompli,” Howard said. “We need to be careful about creating the feeling ‘Oh we’re there.'”

Howard said they would mount a vigorous effort to educate members about the details of the deal and the reasoning behind it. He’s ready to get on the stump and enlist other high-profile members to get out the vote.

“People need to vote,” Howard said. “Please vote.”

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