Will the SAG-AFTRA Merger Happen This Time?

Former SAG president Melissa Gilbert reflects on the last merger attempt: "I remember the night the vote came in, turning to my friends and saying, 'Oh boy, are we in trouble now.' "

Macbeth: If we should fail?

Lady Macbeth: We fail!

But screw your courage to the sticking place,

And we'll not fail.

-- "Macbeth," Act 1, Scene 7

All this has happened before, and it will all happen again.

-- Walt Disney's "Peter Pan"

The announcement April 30 that the Screen Actors Guild had created a committee charged with forging a plan to merge SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists was important for both unions. It was not, however, a big surprise.

Anyone who has paid attention to the two unions for the past two years knows that this process began informally but very much in earnest back in 2009, when Ken Howard was elected SAG president on a pro-merger platform. Last Saturday's news is only the biggest step toward merger to come before the next big step, which should happen May 14, when AFTRA is expected to announce its own parallel committee. Once those two groups, led by their respective union presidents, sit down in the same room together for the first time, SAG and AFTRA will be officially engaged in talks to create a so-called "successor union" encompassing members of both organizations.

Not that they haven't done this before. This will be the fourth trip down the aisle for SAG and AFTRA, the last one having occurred in 2003, an affair that ended when SAG left AFTRA standing at the altar, a guild vote to ratify the merger plan having fallen fewer than two points short of the 60 percent needed to ratify. That defeat kicked off a turf war between the two unions that reached its nadir in 2008, when AFTRA broke off from joint bargaining with SAG and cut its own primetime television deal with producers. The move came as then-SAG president Alan Rosenberg and his political allies issued blistering public attacks against AFTRA and clamored for a strike that never materialized.

When Rosenberg's predecessor, Melissa Gilbert, was elected SAG president in 2001, she, like Howard, had run as a merger candidate. Gilbert became one of the guiding forces behind the Alliance of International Media Artists, the proposed new union that would have been born from a SAG-AFTRA merger. Eight years after losing the ratification fight, Gilbert is convinced that had the AIMA proposal passed, working actors would be better off today.

"Ultimately it would have become a way to merge other performers' unions in North America and across the globe, which was, of course, my grand vision," Gilbert said. "It was a little Don Quixote."

AIMA was conceived as an umbrella union for three semiautonomous labor organizations: SAG (representing actors), AFTRA (representing broadcasters) and the American Federation of Recording Artists (representing, naturally, recording artists, and sharing an acronym with AFTRA's predecessor organization, the American Federation of Radio Artists). In the ballot package mailed to union members April 21, 2003, Gilbert and her AFTRA counterpart, John P. Connolly, made the case for why the time was right for the two unions to finally bind themselves together. They cited corporate consolidation among employers, the rapid growth of digital production technologies, and signs of weakness in both unions' health and pension plans as the prime threats that a merger would help fend off.

Eight years later, media have become even more consolidated, digital production is the norm in television (creating a full-fledged jurisdictional overlap), and pension and health funds have been left bruised by the Great Recession. Consequently, arguments for why now is the right time to merge end up sounding a lot like arguments for why then was the right time.

"It was an extraordinary experience with a really disappointing outcome," Gilbert said. "I remember the night the vote came in, turning to my friends and saying, 'Oh boy, are we in trouble now. I see where this is headed, and there is going to come a time when the two unions are negotiating against one another.' And it happened."

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Gilbert attributed the failure to ratify AIMA to political brawling inside and outside the SAG boardroom (making it notable that Saturday's committee-creating vote passed the national board unanimously). She dismissed the long-standing complaint by her opponents that they were denied the opportunity to issue a minority report with the ballot proposal, and she claimed that her advocacy for merger made her a target of death threats. But given the opportunity, she would not go back and change a thing about AIMA. "No," she said. "I'm going to have to stick to my guns on this one."

Among leaders involved in the current merger movement, however, feelings are mixed about AIMA. Some still believe that it would have provided the solutions to problems that have bedeviled the unions in the years since. Others are less sure.

"Its heart was in the right place, but it wasn't well-executed," said one official involved in the current merger process. "They were essentially trying to do a similar thing to what we're currently trying to do. But because of the time crunch and the vagaries of the process, the final documents wouldn't have led us where we're trying to go now."

Eight years after AIMA fell just short of becoming a reality, renewed enthusiasm for merger has not led to renewed enthusiasm for the plan. Whatever form a new union takes, its architects are expected to start from scratch.

Gary N. Chaison didn't just write the book on union merger; he wrote two of them: 1986's When Unions Merge and 1996's Union Mergers in Hard Times. A professor at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., he said SAG and AFTRA will face two major barriers that most other mergers have faced. The first comes from the officers and staff. The second comes from membership.

"The officers and staff have very pragmatic interests usually -- that is, their pension plans, their health-care benefits, their salaries, their jobs," Chaison said. "The membership, on the other hand, always have that fear of being submerged into a larger organization and being treated as second-class citizens in the new union. So really, the question of merger is a very pragmatic one: 'What's in it for me?' "

Merger proponents will need to campaign to clear those hurdles and ensure that their plan doesn't meet the same fate that AIMA found in 2003. Already, Howard and AFTRA president Roberta Reardon have been engaged in a "listening tour," meeting with members across the country to garner feedback prior to the formation of committees and the drafting of documents. Both presidents no doubt hope that by engaging members -- as well as other officers -- from an early stage, they will be spared the criticisms that plagued Gilbert and Connolly regarding a rushed timeline and supposed deaf ear to dissenters. As Reardon told Back Stage in January, "I know that the 2003 attempt took, from the first meetings to the ratification, less than a year, and that was a very, very fast timeline -- and people complained about it." Reardon also said at the time that a ratification vote could possibly take place by early 2012. Howard, in a recent statement, said that a final decision on merger could come from members before this time next year.

SAG and AFTRA officials have stayed mum on what shape the new union would take. That silence is a result of the listen-first approach developed by Howard and Reardon, with union officials claiming repeatedly that they cannot comment on the merger plan because no plan has yet been discussed. But based on past mergers of other unions, Chaison can draw a rough outline. In order to appease staff members, he said, the new union will likely employ a large staff that will thin out in time through attrition. He also expects a years-long transitional period in which the two unions maintain a high degree of autonomy, the pension and health plans stay separate, and the governing structure is large and complex. Evolution into a leaner, more unified organization will be mapped out in the merger plan, but it will be instituted slowly. Chaison also noted that the same issues that have caused conflict between SAG and AFTRA in the last few years may be things that give this shot at merger a chance to succeed.

"The good thing that SAG and AFTRA have going for them that most unions don't is the extensive overlap in the membership and the technology problems," he said. "You can talk and talk and talk about collective bargaining and organizing and greater ability to strike, but they know that technology is creeping up on them and something has to be done about that. The idea of having distinct lines between craft unions in that industry will become completely meaningless."

Gilbert's take is more optimistic. Though she is several years removed from being active in SAG politics, she is watching the current movement to merge unfold with great interest. "Now is the time," Gilbert said. "Maybe we were a little ahead of ourselves. I'm always going to hope that this is going to happen. When it does -- and it will, eventually -- I'll have a nice dance."

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