SAG-AFTRA LA Local Sets First Meeting

The discussion of benefit plans may be heated, since no progress has been announced eight months after merger.

The Los Angeles local of SAG-AFTRA has set its first meeting for this Monday, Dec. 3. Notably, the meeting will include reports on two timely topics, the SAG and AFTRA benefits plans, and the 2013 commercials contracts negotiations. There will also be a Q&A period with elected representatives – Los Angeles local co-presidents Gabrielle Carteris and Ned Vaughn and the LA board of directors – and staff.

Past meetings of the LA local’s SAG predecessor – the Hollywood division – were often rancorous, reflecting deep political schisms in the division on such issues as merger of SAG and AFTRA, and contract negotiating strategies.

Those fractures seem to have mended significantly in the past several years – the pro-merger vote in the Hollywood division was 82 percent – but private conversations indicate that they haven’t disappeared. How this will manifest itself at the Monday meeting, if at all, remains to be seen.

Of the two announced topics, the discussion of benefit plans is likely to be the more contentious. One of the several reasons advance for merger was the possibility of ameliorating the “split earnings” problems, in which actors see their earnings split between SAG-covered work and AFTRA-covered work, making it more difficult – or for some, impossible – to qualify for pension or health benefits from either unions’ benefit plan.

Although the unions have merged (effective March 30), the contracts and benefit plans have not. Thus, theatrical productions and some television shows are still SAG-covered work and most newer television shows are AFTRA-covered.

In other words, the split earnings problem persists. The SAG-AFTRA board in late July called on the trustees to “implement immediately a reciprocity agreement between the two existing Health Plans” and to “undertake expeditious and appropriate action to create a unified Pension Plan.”

Four months later, no progress has been announced.

The benefit plans are legally separate from the union and from each other, and are governed by boards of trustees that are 50% appointed by the union and 50% by management.

The other topic at the meeting will be the commercials negotiations, which are set to begin in late January or early February. The existing contract expires March 31.

Here again, there are two separate contracts for TV commercials, but the provisions of each – including wage rates – are nearly identical, so unifying them will be significantly easier than it will be for the TV/theatrical contracts with the studios.

Still, with unified commercials contracts but separate benefit plans, there’s likely to be some question as to how employers’ pension and health contributions will be directed: to the SAG plan, the AFTRA plan, the plan that the employer chooses, the plan that the member chooses, or some other method of allocation?

Another issue for the commercials negotiations is likely to be pension and health contribution rates, which are lower than they are for TV or theatrical work.

A larger issue is off the table for this round of negotiations: the experiment with revamping commercial residuals to use formulas based on ratings, known as gross ratings points or GRP. Both the union and the ad agencies agreed that problems with available data mean that more study is needed.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the growth of non-union commercial work. It’s not clear whether that’s something that can be addressed in collective bargaining.

Next year will be a busy one for SAG-AFTRA. After the commercials negotiations come elections and the new union’s first convention, in late spring or early summer. It’s unknown who will run for president, but it seems likely that neither of the current co-presidents, Ken Howard and Roberta Reardon, will do so.

Then, in the fall come preparations for what will likely be difficult TV/theatrical contract negotiations, which will involve unifying the two sets of contracts. There may also be early negotiations in the fall.

In addition, of course, next year will see increasing pressure on the benefit plans to move toward some form of unification.

The LA local’s meeting starts at 7:00 p.m. (registration begins at 6:30) and is open only to paid-up SAG-AFTRA members in good standing. It’s at the Sportsmen’s Lodge in Studio City.

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