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How Actors Get Real Power

Superunion on the Horizon?

Combining a merged SAG-AFTRA with musicians (yes, musicians) would create a superunion poised to dominate Hollywood.

SAG-AFTRA merger ballots go out soon, and if members of Hollywood's two actor unions give a thumbs-up, they'll trigger a two-year process of combining staff, boards, contracts and, probably, pension and health plans.

And then what?

How about two more mergers? Don't laugh. Strategic combinations could change Hollywood and spawn a titan worthy of top billing in a summer action movie: a bulked-up superunion with star power, deep reach into every congressional district and unprecedented leverage against the major studios.

The first step would be to merge SAG-AFTRA with Actors Equity, the stage actors union. That would bring virtually every professional actor under one roof -- allowing the megaguild to turn up the heat on Disney, a big theater producer.

The merged actors union could then go a step further and join with a union that has almost no mind-share in Hollywood: the American Federation of Musicians. Besides sharing the concerns of all entertainment union members -- wages, benefits and job opportunities -- the connection here is AFTRA, the 77,000-member guild that represents actors, newscasters and, importantly, singers. Major-label tracks are usually done by AFTRA singers and AFM musicians, working 16-hour days together.

The unions work together as well. They operate a joint royalties fund, and their music contracts are now synchronized, giving them more power when dealing with the labels -- including Sony Music, which becomes a pressure point against the company's movie studio as well.

A combination of SAG-AFTRA with the AFM would be a game-changer. The musicians' union boasts 90,000 members, which would bring the combined total to a hefty quarter-million. More important, AFM's members are spread across 250 locals, a geographic reach SAG and AFTRA can only dream of.

That translates to the ability to field significant numbers in every state and congressional district -- essential for fighting for union legislation priorities or against those of the studios. The union could, for instance, tie down NBCUniversal by flooding city councils across the country with complaints about cable companies owned by Comcast, the studio's parent.

Now add the wattage of SAG-AFTRA celebrities -- essential for attracting national media attention -- and you have the ingredients for a potent campaign in the air and on the ground.

Is the chairman of a key congressional committee from rural Kansas? SAG-AFTRA-AFM could deploy a Kansas-born star to garner local coverage and generate calls and e-mails. SAG alone, or even SAG-AFTRA, has little reach in places where cows outnumber people. But AFM members live all over the country.

Indeed, the last time an entertainment union strode across the national stage was 70 years ago, when the AFM shut down the record industry -- and put the radio industry in a vise -- for two years beginning in 1942. Choking off entertainment at the height of World War II led to a national uproar, but AFM president James Petrillo stood firm, even in the face of a personal appeal from FDR. So undeterred was Petrillo that he didn't hesitate to call a second strike, in 1948, that lasted almost a year. Both ended with the companies capitulating.

Can entertainment labor pull off a hat trick? SAG-AFTRA politics are sure to be complex, the AFM has its own stresses, and mega-union proposals often founder over concerns that one constituency might dominate. Certainly none of this will happen unless SAG and AFTRA merge. Equity won't join up if those two unions are estranged, and for SAG, the road to AFM leads straight through AFTRA -- and maybe to true national power.

MERGER FOES MAKE THEIR CASE

Despite signs os member support for combining SAG and AFTRA, a small yet increasingly vocal minority is making its opposition heard. About 30 picketers gathered outside the Los Angeles headquarters of both actor unions in February for two "Save SAG" rallies designed to call attention to perceived shortcomings of the merger, including questions about whether SAG health plans would be weakened after combining with AFTRA. The unions' leadership argues that a merger will bring the clout needed to stand up to conglomerate-owned studios, beat back nonunion work and improve benefits. But some, such as longtime SAG board member and former vp Anne-Marie Johnson, call that a fallacy, arguing the plan would "marginalize actors and be a first step toward breaking the union." Others are agonizing over which way to vote when the issue is put before members in late February. "I'm leaning toward no," says Ron Ostrow, an alternate on SAG's negotiating committee, before adding that he is "concerned that saying no is worse than saying yes." SAG members rejected merger proposals in 1998 and 2003, but the union has elected pro-merger leaders in recent years, and 87 percent of its national board endorsed a combination plan in January. Still, a whiff of litigation is in the air, with at least one opposition group threatening to sue in federal court to stop the merger vote before it happens.