SAG/AFTRA Merger: Leaked Mercer Report Raises Questions About Opposition Lawsuit (Exclusive)

SAG AFTRA Logo - P 2012

SAG AFTRA Logo - P 2012

Does the 2003 study prove the anti-merger case as claimed? It’s time for union members to judge for themselves.

For almost a decade, proponents of a SAG/AFTRA merger have been haunted by the long shadow of a confidential study that opponents say proves that merging the unions would undermine SAG members’ pension and health benefits. Observers and activists generally feel that the study caused the defeat of a 2003 merger attempt that failed by 2 percent, and it remains very much in play.

Indeed, just yesterday, merger opponents told a federal court in their litigation filing that the nine-year old study was still valid, apparently notwithstanding a myriad of intervening changes in the economy, plan details, the entertainment industry, and allocation of television work between the two unions.

“Based on the conclusions of the 2003 Mercer Report, Plaintiffs and the SAG membership will be imminently and irrevocably harmed” if merger proceeds, said the complaint, including by “diminution in value of member benefits, union funds, pension benefits, (and) health benefits.”

Likewise, in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter yesterday, SAG board member Anne-Marie Johnson, a plaintiff in the lawsuit, said that the Mercer Report had concluded that “any merger of the SAG pension and health plan with the AFTRA health and retirement plan would cause a diminution of benefits to SAG members.”

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Days earlier, another plaintiff – anti-merger activist and former SAG board member Michael Bellwrote that the Mercer Report “clearly showed a dimunition [sic] of benefits if SAG merged with AFTRA.”

But there’s a problem with this narrative: the report doesn’t “clearly show” any such thing. On the contrary, the 2003 document says that pension plan costs were likely to go up or benefits go down “with or without a merger” (p. 28).

Regarding the health plan, the report lists a variety of differences between SAG’s plan and AFTRA’s; the SAG plan looks better in more respects than AFTRA’s, but the report draws no conclusions as to what a merged plan might look like. It also lists various administrative savings that a merger could bring, but manages to quantify only some of them, and draws no conclusions as to whether the savings would make a material difference in benefits or plan health.

The report also speaks of “the broader benefits of a merger” (p. 5), a phrase scarcely consistent with the way it’s been publicly characterized by merger opponents. Ironically, those activists – who criticize AFTRA as being too compliant with management – adopted their gloss on the report from a leaked memo prepared by a studio executive who serves as one of the management-side trustees of the SAG P&H plan.

The Mercer report has also emerged as the archetype of the “impact report” that merger opponents demand that guild officials perform and excoriate them for refusing to do. They reject as inadequate the “feasibility report” the union prepared last month, which stated that plan mergers were legal, common and often beneficial, but didn’t analyze actuarial data specific to the SAG and AFTRA plans.

Instead, for instance, yesterday’s lawsuit echoes a call that the union “provide at least as much due diligence as was provided by the Mercer report.”

Likewise, Bell described with evident approval a guild member at a recent meeting who “confronted (union officials) about why SAG has not presented a Financial Impact Report like the Mercer Report from 03.” In addition, Johnson told THR the Mercer Report was “a detailed impact study,” and said that “a similar impact study” should be done now.

The difficulty with this theme is that the 44-page report is so hedged with alternatives, qualifiers and open-ended questions that it’s unclear whether an undecided union voter would find much value in the report, or even an updated equivalent.

Thus, although merger opponents and some undecided voters have insisted that the union specify the structure, premiums, benefits, eligibility criteria, co-pays and other details of the pension and/or health plans if the unions merge, they’d find that the Mercer Report, were it publicly available, would tell them none of these things.

But the document isn’t publicly available, or hasn’t been. Locked away in a small number of file cabinets across the city, the report has remained an abstraction, freighted with anger and fear, accepted with certitude as damning proof by many who’ve never even seen it, and exulted for utility it may not actually have.

Were it available, union members would be able to judge for themselves whether the report has been accurately characterized and whether a report of this sort, even if updated to reflect current data, would have sufficient value to justify halting the merger referendum in its tracks in order to perform such a study.

For those reasons, The Hollywood Reporter is publishing the Mercer Report for the first time here.