SAG/AFTRA Merger Committee Meets Tomorrow

Chris Godley

Meanwhile, a source gives THR an exclusive peek at the state of merger negotiations and highlights a few of the issues.

Call it G1(3) x 5. That would be the SAG/AFTRA Group for One Union’s third meeting, which starts Friday and lasts for five days. As the name implies, G1 is the committee that’s been developing a merger plan for the two unions.

“Our upcoming five day meeting is a terrific opportunity to continue making serious progress,” Ned Vaughn, SAG 1st VP, told The Hollywood Reporter. “Getting a merger plan to our boards in January is my top priority.”

That’s going to involve a lot of work. G1 subcommittees and union staff have been meeting in between meetings of the committee as a whole and the pace will only accelerate as crunch time approaches.

Like producers shepherding a tentpole movie, the unions have already staked a date for the public debut of the process’s high profile phase: as SAG president Ken Howard told THR last month, that date is January 29, and the venue will be the nationally televised SAG Awards ceremony, the union’s most high-profile event of the year. Howard will announce at that time that merger ballots will soon be on their way to members.

That’s assuming, of course, that both unions’ boards approve the plan that G1 creates. That’s generally assumed to be a foregone conclusion, however. The boards will be meeting earlier in January.

The plan will need to address a wide range of issues, include such matters as membership qualifications and fees, elections, staffing, governance structure, working rules, contracts and more.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a source close to the process told THR that among the more challenging issues was membership, given that AFTRA is an “open” union (anyone can join simply by applying and paying the initiation fee), whereas getting into SAG is more difficult.

The source suggested that one approach might be to create tiered membership, with associate membership easier to obtain or perhaps open to all. Actor’s Equity has a program of this sort, the Equity Membership Candidate Program, and the WGA West has an associate membership category.

The source cautioned, however, that no decision had been reached on the matter. Another noteworthy issue is the two unions’ offices around the country. Although a number are joint SAG/AFTRA offices, others are not. In light of economic pressures, some of the smaller ones may face closure or consolidation, suggested the source.

The G1 subcommittees are beginning to draft language for various parts of the merger plan, which means decisions are beginning to be reached. Some issues, though, are still too hot to handle. For instance, what will the new union be called?

The source said only “no one wants to go near that one.”

Another question that’s clearly awkward is the matter of who will be executive director of the new union, AFTRA’s Kim Roberts Hedgpeth or SAG’s David White. Both have many strong supporters.

There may be some difficult horse trading by the time the process is done, but that stage hasn’t been reached yet, said the source.

As far as elected officers are concerned, the source suggested the most likely proposal would be to maintain two parallel sets of officers until current terms expire in 2013. “Otherwise you’d be asking elected officers to step down” in mid-term, a messy proposition that seems scarcely necessary, since the overlap is likely to be only about a year.

Thus, Howard, and AFTRA president Roberta Reardon, may retain their seats until some time in 2013.

One thing the merger documents won’t contain is a blueprint for merging the two unions’ pension and health plans. That’s because those plans are independent entities, governed by boards that are split 50-50 between management and union representatives. The unions don’t have the power to unilaterally decide what the merged or successor plans might look like.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the plans’ future is completely unclear. Federal law provides various protections, such as those relating to vested pensions. The source indicated that the merger materials to be provided to members are likely to explain some of the law that applies.

In addition, of course, SAG and AFTRA are scarcely the first unions that have merged in the U.S., meaning that pension and health plan mergers have also been previously addressed. The merger materials may give members some sense of how key P&H issues have been handled in other union mergers.

SAG and AFTRA had no comment.


Twitter: @jhandel