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SAG, AFTRA merger makes for few bumps

Screen Actors Guild Awards 2013

A year ago at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, leaders of SAG and AFTRA unveiled plans to merge the two performers unions with SAG prexy Ken Howard touting the combo on the live telecast.

In late March, members overwhelmingly approved the merger, dissolving both unions and creating the 165,000-member SAG-AFTRA.

The Screen Actors Guild, though, lives on as the moniker of the 19th iteration of SAG Awards as part of its agreement with TNT and TBS. That might change later this year when the union’s awards committee examines the issue.

“I am stunned to think that it was just a year ago that we were unveiling the campaign at the SAG Awards,” says co-president Roberta Reardon, who campaigned actively for the merger for many years. “There’s an enormous amount of work that goes into the creation of a new union. The day-to-day tasks of putting it together have been staggering although sometimes the little things become huge and the huge things become little.”

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Her co-president Ken Howard, who served as SAG’s 25th and final president, echoes that assessment: “One thing I’ve been very pleased with is how smoothly the merger has taken hold. I’ve heard lots of positive feedback from members, and the big surprise is that there have been so few surprises.”

Reardon is particularly impressed with how the staff and the elected leadership have dealt with the challenges of change. One of the big surprises has been member reaction to AFTRA broadcasters fitting into the merged union.

“It’s been less of a bump than people expected,” she says. “I think broadcasters recognize that being part of a bigger union enhances their ability to bargain. And broadcasters are very much like actors.”

Merger backers had contended that combining the unions would increase leverage at the bargaining table. With Reardon as the chair of the negotiating committee for commercial contract with the ad industry, that theory will meet reality in the next few weeks with a Valentine’s Day start on a contract that expires March 31.

Reardon points to solidarity at the wages and working-conditions meetings in the fall plenary as a positive indicator and notes that she’s been on the negotiating committees for this contract since 1997.

“We have a lot of negotiating coming up this year with commercials, followed by prep for network code, sound recordings and TV/Theatrical/Exhibit A (which covers primetime TV and theatrical motion pictures),” she says. “So it’s going to be a year where we discover that solidarity, power and leverage are not just words. And the consolidation within the media industry will have a huge impact on these contracts.”

Howard stresses that conglomerates are healthy. “We see the box office and TV revenues flourishing — it’s important that our members’ ability to share in that keeps pace,” he says.

Reardon says it will be beneficial for SAG-AFTRA to be negotiating on more than one master contract this year because issues raised in one pact can have direct impacts on other accords. “I think we’ll be in a position of being ahead of the curve rather than playing catch-up,” she adds.

More immediately, though, Reardon will give a joint address at the show with Howard. “I have to say that seeing all the incredible work that’s been nominated has been an amazing experience,” she says. “There’s wonderful artistry on display.”

In addition to the contract talks, Reardon notes that the first SAG-AFTRA convention will take place in late September in Los Angeles.

“We’re going to be very busy this year with an election, convention, organizing, the negotiations for commercials, and prep for sound recordings, the net code and TV/Theatrical/Exhibit A negotiations,” she adds. “We’re not sitting around eating bonbons. I’ve been very jazzed by the reception from members so far.”

Reardon also remains optimistic on perhaps the biggest issue brought up by the merger campaign: merging the separate SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans as a way of solving the problem of performers making separate contributions to each plan and not earning enough to qualifying for either.

“It’s a very complex process and a very difficult subject for a lot of people,” she says. “The trustees are moving with all speed. It is doable and we will get it done.”

Screen Actors Guild Awards 2013
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