SAG-AFTRA Candidates Still Fighting Merger Battle (Analysis)

Echoes of past conflicts abound, particularly in Los Angeles, but the union seems generally calm.

SAG-AFTRA released a list of officer and board candidates Thursday night, and it shows that this summer’s elections will once again feature a battle for national and Los Angeles offices between candidates fielded by Unite for Strength, which guided SAG to its 2012 merger with AFTRA, and those who are — or at least were — aligned with MembershipFirst, which bitterly opposed that joinder and has dramatically lost strength since the merger.

Meanwhile, the New York election consists almost entirely of two slates that The Hollywood Reporter has learned are running a consolidated campaign rather than competing with each other, with one slate, United Screen Actors Nationwide, led by incumbent New York local president Mike Hodge and dominated by former SAG activists, and the other, New York Coalition for Unity, somewhat heavier with former AFTRA politicos, including former president Roberta Reardon.

Thus, although the industry now works with a merged SAG-AFTRA, the union’s internal politics still reflect divisions that go back more than a decade. But compared to the once-vituperative warfare that roiled SAG and mired it in dysfunction, litigation and stalled negotiations, today’s disagreements echo more like ripples in a pond.

At the national level, incumbent union president and UFS leader Ken Howard is being challenged by MF’s Patricia Richardson, while UFS’s secretary-treasurer candidate Jenny O’Hara will face off against Jane Austin of MF. Howard was president of SAG from 2009 until the merger, and has been president of SAG-AFTRA since.

Ballots for the two national officer slots will be mailed July 21 and are due back August 20. The same schedule will apply to the Los Angeles and New York elections, while the timetable for other places varies. The local ballots encompass local presidents and vice presidents, national and local board members, and convention delegates. In turn, the delegates will elect an executive vp and various national vice presidents at the convention, held Oct. 1-4.

While UFS is fielding a formal slate — its candidates are identifying themselves as such in their official national and Los Angeles candidate — many Membership First candidates are not advertising their past alignment with the group, whose former website is now for sale. Whether the organization is defunct is unclear — some MF-aligned candidates’ statements imply that there’s an MF slate, while others are silent on the matter — but in any case the group’s anti-merger battle cry still lives, to judge from the official statements of a number of aligned candidates, such as those of former MF leader David Jolliffe: “We’ve been merged for over 3 years.… Where’s all this new extra power? It’s all been one huge disappointment.”

A flash point for MF remains the union-affiliated pension and health plans, which continue to exist as two separate organizations: one formerly affiliated with SAG and the other with AFTRA. That makes it harder for members to qualify for health insurance or pensions, since their earnings — which must meet certain thresholds to qualify for the SAG= or AFTRA-affiliated benefits — are still generally counted in two separate silos, corresponding to the two legacy unions.

There has been progress: As of 2014, earnings can sometimes be aggregated under the rubric of “reciprocity” or “combined earnings eligibility” for purposes of health insurance qualification, and last month, union national executive director David White said that there had been “significant progress” toward merging the health plans. That’s been a slow process — the unions merged more than three years ago — but combining or otherwise restructuring the pension plans is expected to be even more difficult, given their fiscal complexity. And both the health and pension plans are the joint responsibility of labor and management, as the plans’ boards are equally divided between the two sides.

Back on the battlefield, incumbent Los Angeles local president Clyde Kusatsu is facing MF-aligned Austin, while for the two local vp slots, two UFS candidates and — surprisingly — three MF stalwarts are running. Running three candidates for two slots risks splitting the MF vote, aiding the UFS candidates. It’s unclear whether that overabundance of vp candidates is a sign that the group is defunct, disorganized or has an unusual strategy.

Los Angeles voters also will select 19 national board members from a field of 39 candidates, including about 13 from MF, 19 on the UFS slate and about 7 unaffiliated. There also are 66 candidates for 41 local board seats: 34 on the UFS slate and about 21 with MF roots or identification.

Among the high-profile candidates for national board positions are Ed Asner, an MF stalwart who was president of SAG from 1981 to 1985 — well before MF’s formation — and who later, in 2013, sued SAG-AFTRA alleging misconduct in the processing of unpaid residuals and foreign levies. That suit, which was one of many filed over the years by MF activists, ended with a dismissal. Other notable national board candidates include UFS founder and incumbent secretary-treasurer Amy Aquino, who is not running for reelection to that post and is no longer on the UFS slate, and UFS member and union executive vp Gabrielle Carteris, who retains the option to run for reelection to that national office at convention. There’s a high-profile candidate for Los Angeles local board as well, MF’s Martin Sheen.

Meanwhile, in New York, incumbent local president Hodge is running unopposed and the consolidated nature of the two slates fielding candidates, USAN and NYC4U, is evident in the electoral math: They’re each offering partial slates that when added together amount to full slates. For example, there are four vacancies for New York local vp positions, but rather than field four candidates each, USAN and NYC4U are each offering two candidates. Similarly, they’re offering four and three candidates, respectively, for national board member, where there are seven vacancies. There’s an MF candidate for national board as well, and three who do not appear aligned with any slate or group.

In the rest of the country, nearly half the locals had entirely uncontested elections. There, members will receive ballots for the national offices only.

The complete list of candidates can be found by downloading the various voter guides at SAG-AFTRA’s website.

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