AFTRA Moves Closer to Merger With SAG

For the first time, the union’s national board votes on the current merger attempt, passing a key resolution “overwhelmingly”; the measure includes a statement that AFTRA leadership is “encouraged by the renewed interest expressed by SAG’s current leadership.”

AFTRA’s national board Saturday continued down the path towards merger with SAG, “overwhelmingly pass(ing) a resolution formally authorizing AFTRA leadership to continue working with Screen Actors Guild in the Presidents’ Forum for One Union and its ‘Listening Tour,’” according to an AFTRA statement.

The “Listening Tour” is series of meetings the two unions have been jointly conducting around the country to canvass members on issues related to merger – or, in AFTRA’s terminology, creation of “a new, successor union.”

The language also includes an end date for the peripatetic process: at AFTRA’s next board meeting, on May 14, the board will receive a recommendation as to whether to “whether or not to create a committee to engage in formal discussions with SAG” regarding merger.

That recommendation will come from the union president’s National Strategy Cabinet, an AFTRA advisory group, based in part on input from the union’s Presidents’ Forum members.

SAG’s process has not yet been announced, but may be discussed at tomorrow’s SAG national board meeting. In any case, merger is clearly a journey that will involve many steps – and many committee meetings – for both unions. AFTRA president Roberta Reardon referred to it as an “ambitious project.”

The AFTRA vote marks the first time AFTRA’s board has weighed in on the current efforts towards merger. Previous steps were taken under Reardon’s discretionary authority.

Saturday's’s resolution includes some strong signals of support for merger, reciting that “the overwhelming majority of AFTRA’s past and present elected leadership and AFTRA’s general membership have long supported the concept of combining (the two unions)” and that in past merger attempts in 1998 and in 2003, AFTRA “successfully delivered a resounding ‘yes’ vote” on the issue.

Those attempts failed on the SAG side. Notably, in the 2003 process, SAG members voted Yes by just a couple percentage points shy of the 60% that each union requires in order to approve the merger.

The resolution also includes a statement that “AFTRA’s current elected leadership is encouraged by the renewed interest expressed by SAG’s current leadership in bringing AFTRA and SAG together into a new successor union.”

The reference to SAG’s “current” leadership is a reminder that just a few years ago, SAG leadership was controlled by MembershipFirst, a group vehemently opposed to merger and often contemptuous of AFTRA itself. SAG’s leadership, and political climate, has changed dramatically in the last three annual election cycles, with MembershipFirst essentially reduced to a small splinter group.

Several MembershipFirst members are on the AFTRA board as well, but one of them,  Los Angeles member Alan Ruck, resigned today from the national board. The Los Angeles local board has elected actor Matt Kimbrough, not a MembershipFirst member, to replace Ruck.

The Listening Tour meetings have or will encompass the major AFTRA Locals – Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Chicago and Washington/Baltimore – and in as many of the other locals as feasible, according to the statement.

In a related action, the AFTRA board approved “an unusual expenditure of a (limited-time) stipend” for Reardon to offset her loss of income from missed work opportunities due to time spent on the Listening Tour. The AFTRA presidency is normally an unpaid position.

Pension and health was also a topic at what appears to have been a busy meeting. Shelby Scott, Union Chair of the Trustees of the AFTRA Health & Retirement Funds and past AFTRA National President, reported that the Retirement Fund gained 11% in the last fiscal year and continues to operate in the “green zone,” while the AFTRA Health Fund has more than a year’s assets in reserve.

The board also received updates on the union’s Interactive Media Agreement, an AFTRA-only contract which expires on March 31 (SAG failed to ratify its Interactive Media contract in 2009) and on AFTRA Non-Broadcast/Industrial/Educational Recorded Material Code, which expires on April 30 and which will be renegotiated jointly with SAG. No bargaining dates have yet been set for either agreement.

In addition, the board was told by national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth that ratification is underway on an 18-month extension to the AFTRA Sound Recordings Code, with votes due back on Feb. 8. If ratified, the extension will expire on Dec. 31, 2011, according to the AFTRA statement.

Hedgpeth also reported that during the first six months of the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the union has collected more than $7 million on behalf of AFTRA members through claims, grievances, arbitrations, legal action and legal settlements.