SAG and AFTRA Members Speak Out on Merger

Opinions at a Los Angeles members’ meeting are mixed, but SAG’s Hollywood Division has elected pro-merger candidates for three years running.

SAG and AFTRA leaders held a “listening tour” meeting Tuesday night in Los Angeles and heard a variety of opinions on merging the two unions, ranging from “please merge” to “I’d rather not,” albeit expressed somewhat more vigorously.

Among the intriguing points from inside the closed-door meeting: some members urged that a merged, successor union turn its attention to organizing non-fiction basic cable networks such as the Food Channel and even reality TV participants – imagine Snooki and “The Situation” with union cards – while others hoped that a SAG-AFTRA amalgamation would lead to a linkup with the stage actors union, Actors Equity, as well.

Several sources described the 235 attendees as split roughly 50-50 between those favoring merger and those against. That’s not representative of the electorate though, as SAG’s Hollywood Division as a whole appears strongly pro-merger: in the last three annual election cycles, members voted by increasing margins for candidates from the Unite for Strength faction, whose platform is built solidly around merger. In the most recent balloting, in fall 2010, UFS swept the polls.

Pension and health issues emerged as key for members on both sides of the merger divide. Supporters of uniting the two unions pointed at the meeting to the “split earnings” problem: with theatrical work exclusively SAG, and new television shows (and, thus, much though not all television work) being done under AFTRA contracts, actors who are members of both unions find their earnings split between two sets of pension and health plans. That makes it harder for those “dual cardholders” to meet the required earnings thresholds for either union’s pension or health plans. They can be left with no health insurance, for instance, even if their earnings in aggregate would have qualified were there a single union and single health plan.

The split earnings problem isn’t new, but it’s taken on increased urgency in the last several years due to SAG’s almost total loss of new television work to AFTRA. That shift began when producers fled the 2008 turmoil and stalemate within SAG – conditions that, ironically, were driven by the anti-AFTRA faction that controlled SAG at the time.

Merger skeptics acknowledge the split earnings issue, but raised a variety of concerns at the meeting about the shape of the P&H plans – particularly the pension plan – if the unions do merge. For instance, federal law protects members whose pensions have vested, but merger opponents also asked what would happen to members who are close to vesting but not quite there: if it becomes necessary to “freeze” the current SAG and AFTRA pension plans and create a single new plan going forward, the question raised is whether those members would receive credit for their years of service. A similar issue arises with regard to health coverage for SAG “Senior Performers,” since eligibility for certain lifetime coverage is keyed off of pension credits.

Some members also raised P&H questions regarding differing benefit levels, qualifying thresholds, and similar matters. They also, of course, had questions about the nature of the new union itself – its governance structure, entrance requirements, dues structure and the like.

But there’s a key difference: the answers to the latter questions – regarding the nature of the new union – are intended to be contained in the merger plan that a joint union committee will begin creating in a few weeks. That plan is to be delivered to the union boards by the end of January 2012 and, assuming likely board approvals, will go to each union’s members for a vote. (Passage requires a 60% affirmative vote by the members voting in each union.)

However, the answers to the P&H questions will not be contained in the jointly developed merger documents. That’s because the two unions don’t control their respective P&H plans. Rather, the plans are separate legal entities, each governed by a board of trustees that is 50% union appointed and 50% management. Those trustees will be the ones who would decide how and when to merge the P&H plans. That won’t happen until and unless the unions themselves merge.

Merger skeptics are thus asking for a certitude on P&H that the unions won’t be able to deliver, even next January – but, among other things, they’re also reluctant to vote for a merger that involves a leap into the unknown on benefits matters.

In response, it’s understood that SAG and AFTRA leaders may try to provide some roadmap and reassurance for members on P&H matters, even though they can’t bind the trustees to a specific approach. That reassurance might include illustrations of how similar problems have been resolved in other union mergers over the last decade or two, since questions about vesting and benefits under a successor plan are scarcely unique to the SAG-AFTRA situation. As the union leaders are keenly aware, merger discussions date back to the late 1930’s, and P&H issues played a key part in derailing the unions’ last merger attempt in 2003.

Pension and health details aside, merger proponents argue that unless the two unions merge, they’ll continue to share an awkward overlapping jurisdiction over television and new media work, dual cardholders will continue to struggle with the split earnings problem (as well as having to pay two sets of initiation fees and dues), and the unions will co-exist and negotiate in a sometimes fragile alliance against a more unified management. The union leadership hopes that those factors – and the opportunity to focus a merged union’s attention on new media and new challenges – will make this merger attempt the end of a 70 year discussion and the beginning of a new union.

SAG and AFTRA declined to comment for this story.


Twitter: @jhandel