3 Big Challenges for the Merged Union

The March 30 vote was resounding: AFTRA members voted 86 percent to merge the two dominant actor unions, and SAG members -- who had voted down a merger twice in the past 13 years -- gave a stunning 82 percent thumbs up. But the hard work lies ahead. Besides integrating a 600-person staff, the new union must do the following:

1. Mobilize Members

SAG-AFTRA's 150,000 members make it the largest entertainment union, but that doesn't mean it's organized. Much of the past decade and a half has been marred by inter-union wars, stalled contract talks and repeated litigation (some of which is pending). Now the union's task is to get members to come together with one another and other unions to form a potential fighting force. That's the implicit threat needed to speak softly but persuasively at the bargaining table. Notes SAG-AFTRA co-president Roberta Reardon, "Organizing is the lifeblood of any union, and our members know it."

2. Save Benefits

The SAG marketshare of fall series will fall decisively below 50 percent this year, and that puts pressure on the SAG pension and health plans, which are funded based on earnings under SAG contracts. Yes, it's all one union now, but the contracts are separate -- and so are the pension and health plans. Consolidating them will take time. With the SAG health plan cutting benefits and raising premiums at a dramatic rate, and members falling short of earnings qualification levels for coverage under the SAG or AFTRA plan, the time for action is now.

3. Control Negotiations

Commercials talks start in the fall, and the ad industry wants to revamp residuals. The negotiations will be a crucial test for the new union's resolve, sending a signal to Hollywood and, most importantly, to the studios and networks, whose negotiations start 12 to 18 months later. Leverage is about perception as much as reality, and the commercials talks will be the first impression anyone has of what the new SAG-AFTRA union really means.