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SAG-AFTRA Election Calendar Turns Up Pressure for Progress on Pension and Health (Analysis)

SAG AFTRA One Union Logo - H 2012

Reading the tri-union tea leaves also suggests that WGA negotiations might go down to the wire next year.

A SAG-AFTRA spokesperson has provided The Hollywood Reporter with the calendar for the union’s upcoming elections. As with the previous SAG elections, the process occupies roughly the middle third of the year, but the SAG-AFTRA elections take place once every two years, not annually, sparing the union at least some of the distraction that often accompanied the SAG elections.

From the calendar, it’s possible to make some predictions regarding the unification of the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans -- and even to look ahead to the 2013-14 negotiations between the studios and each of the three above-the-line unions.

Start with the P&H situation. With a June deadline to submit nominating petitions, the current leadership can be expected to come under intense fire if the SAG and AFTRA health plans have not adopted some form of reciprocity by then.

Reciprocity would reduce or even eliminate the split earnings problem -- the crediting of some of their earnings to the SAG plan and some to the AFTRA plan -- that causes some to fail to qualify for health coverage or pension credits, sometimes falling short of necessary thresholds by just a few hundred dollars.

Health plan reciprocity would not address the split earnings problem regarding pension credits, meaning that some members would fail to receive credit for a given years of work where they might have, had there not been two plans. That can cause members to receive lower pensions than they would otherwise. However, that effect for many actors is years away, since pensions aren’t normally paid until age 65 or so.

Reducing and ultimately eliminating the split earnings problem was cited as a key benefit of the merger, which overwhelmingly passed on March 31 last year. Hence the heightened urgency: absent reciprocity, merger opponents will have a powerful plank on which to base their campaign.

And absent reciprocity, those of the current leadership who decide to run in this year’s elections would have to fall back on pointing out that -- as required by federal labor law -- the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans are legally separate from the unions, and are governed by a board of trustees consisting of equal numbers of union and management representatives, making it impossible for union leadership to unilaterally drive the process.

That’s a message whose subtlety could easily be lost in the heat of an election campaign.

Another cited benefit of the merger was that it would increase the power of the union, not only because bigger is stronger, but also because a single union reduces tensions between the two separate unions by internalizing the debate. Thus, the elections also place the current leadership under pressure to achieve favorable results in the commercials negotiation, which commence Feb. 14.

The election calendar also proves to be a key that unlocks the question of when the various unions will negotiate with the studios for their 2014 contract renewals.

For SAG-AFTRA, the negotiations are preceded several months earlier by the union’s Wages & Working Conditions process of surveying the membership on its priorities, which can’t really begin until after the union’s convention, because otherwise it would be taking place during the union’s election process (which immediately precedes the convention), and during the time that leadership will be focused on preparing for the convention.

The convention is scheduled for the end of September. Thus, the W&W process can be expected to take place in October, November and perhaps early December. Then the negotiating committee will put the final touches on a package of contract proposals during December and January.

Then the national board will vote on the package at its first meeting of the new year, which will take place in late January or early February, as did this year’s board meeting. That means that the SAG-AFTRA negotiations can’t begin until mid-February at the earliest.

They’ll probably be at least three weeks, because of the complexity of the issues involved (new media, pension and health, possible merger of the SAG and AFTRA contracts, differing wage rates for SAG and AFTRA contracts) and the fact that basic cable negotiations are conducted separately, during the week following the main negotiations. The cable discussions themselves may be more complex than usual, because the SAG and AFTRA approaches to basic cable differ in some key ways.

What about the other two unions? The DGA likes to negotiate quite early. In the 2010-11 bargaining cycle, the DGA began negotiations in mid-November, for instance. In the previous, 2007-08 cycle, the DGA waited until January, but only because the WGA was on strike at the time.

In contrast to the DGA, the WGA likes to negotiate late. Last cycle, its talks began in early March.

These facts suggest that the DGA will negotiate is theatrical and television contract with the studios this fall; SAG-AFTRA will begin in mid-February or perhaps early March; and the WGA will begin in late March or perhaps early April -- about a month later than in the last cycle.

As spokespeople and statements from the unions indicate, the unions have not set their schedules yet. Nonetheless, the above timetable seems likely.

And if this prognostication is correct, then the WGA negotiations may turn out to be tense for the industry. This is because the WGA contract expires May 1, whereas the other two unions’ run until June 30. That, in turn, means that the industry might start stockpiling feature film scripts in the fall or the early 2014, as a hedge against a possible labor disturbance. When that happens, work later decreases as studios work through the stockpile.

Only time will tell.

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The SAG-AFTRA election schedule is as follows:

For President, Secretary-Treasurer, the Los Angeles and New York Locals, and delegates:

May 15: nominating petitions available

June 14: deadline to submit petitions

June 17: voting eligibility cut off -- members must have paid their union dues by this date in order to vote.

July 16: ballots mailed

August 15: deadline for receipt of voted ballots

September 26-29: SAG-AFTRA convention

The schedule for other locals varies depending on the local, but all voted ballot receipt deadlines are fixed dates between July 29 and August 15.

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Email: jhandel99 at gmail dot com

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