Commentary: SAG, AFTRA should merge

New media might be what finally unites the two unions

More SAG/AFTRA news

Now that they've agreed to stop their bickering and return to the bargaining table to jointly negotiate their contracts, it's time for SAG to AFTRA to take that final step: They need to get married.

They met and had a baby in the 1950s. They called the child Television. Before that, SAG represented movie actors and AFTRA represented radio performers and recording artists (this was before the "T" -- for television -- was added to its name). But when the baby came along, their parent organization, the AFL-CIO, decided to split custody: SAG would get jurisdiction over primetime and AFTRA would get everything else: daytime soaps, late-night shows and the news. And it sort of made sense. After all, the sudsers had started on the radio, and broadcast news did, too.

Joint custody worked out OK for a while, but there always were simmering tensions over sharing jurisdiction. Then, in 1981, SAG got up the nerve and proposed. Under Phase One of their engagement, they would jointly negotiate television contracts, and agreed that at a later date, Phase Two of their rocky relationship, they would buy a house together and merge operations and assets.

Weddings were planned in 1999 and 2003, but SAG, ever the reluctant Romeo, left AFTRA at the altar both times. The unions' constitutions require that at least 60% of members approve a merger. AFTRA, eager to tie the knot, got 68% in 1999 and 76% in 2003. But SAG could only muster 46% the first time and 58% the second. The wedding was off.

In 2008, in a fit of jealousy (SAG leaders had met with some of AFTRA's disgruntled soap actors), the latter decided to call the whole thing off. It moved out and decided to negotiate a separate deal with management. The result was less than perfect for either organization. AFTRA ended up negotiating a richer deal, with minimum pay rates 3.5% higher than SAG's. But even with those higher rates, AFTRA is getting all new TV pilots. For the 2010 season alone, about 82 pilots -- including 75 primetime network pilots -- are being shot under AFTRA's contract, while only one so far is being shot under SAG's.

Although certainly a worrisome development for SAG, it's actually bad for both unions. The stampede of pilots to AFTRA could result in a price war, with both unions slashing prices in a downward race to the bottom. The winners would be the producers, and the losers would be members of both unions.

The reason for the producers' stampede to sign with AFTRA, even though its contract is more costly, is because AFTRA is seen as the more stable of the two, the one less likely to go on strike next year if the two sides don't get their acts together. On the other hand, the rush to sign AFTRA's TV contract also might indicate that producers see the union as a pushover -- one that hasn't gone on strike without SAG at its side since 1967.

Both unions, however, recently came to their senses and decided to return to Phase One of their proposed marriage and return to the bargaining table together for the first time since 2005.

Perhaps a marriage won't be far behind.

SAG president Ken Howard, who would be the best man at such a ceremony, was elected last year on a platform enthusiastically calling for merger. But AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon, who would be the maid of honor at such a blessed event, is noticeably cooler to the notion than her predecessors, though she says she's open to the idea.

The arrival of a new baby -- new media -- finally could bring the unions to the church. With more and more acting jobs being digitalized, computerized and turning up online, a shotgun wedding might be the only alternative to a new round of fighting and feuding over custody.

If they do get hitched, the last quarrel might be over which name to adopt.

SAG is the brand name -- the Tiffany of Hollywood labor unions. Everybody knows what the S and A and G stand for: For heaven's sake, a former SAG president became U.S. president. No other union in the country can say that. Outside of Hollywood, most people have never heard of AFTRA, or think it's that insurance company they see in all the TV commercials -- you know, the one with the duck.

David Robb is a regular commentator for The Hollywood Reporter. He has covered Hollywood's unions for more than 20 years and is the author of "Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies." He can be reached at