SAG/AFTRA Merger: What's Next as Committee Approves Key Proposal (Analysis)

Chris Godley

After nine days of meetings, the AFTRA and SAG Group for One Union have approved a merger package to send to the two unions’ boards for approval. The move was expected.

“What we have accomplished over the last year is tremendously gratifying,” said SAG president Ken Howard and AFTRA president Roberta Reardon in a joint statement. “We are confident our members will agree that we have created something we can all be proud of."

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SAG’s board will meet on Jan. 27 and 28  and AFTRA’s on Jan. 28 and, if needed, Jan. 29. Both boards are expected to approve the proposal, whose details are being kept under wraps until then.

The proposal would then be sent to the two unions’ membership for a vote, a phase that Howard and Reardon are likely to kick off with an announcement at the nationally televised SAG Awards on Jan. 29.

At that point, the crystal ball turns a bit more murky. Merger has been under discussion virtually since the two unions were founded in the 1930’s, even before AFTRA was AFTRA. It started as “AFRA” – no “T(elevision)” back then. And before that, radio was even briefly under the purview of the stage actors union Actors’ Equity, which continues to exist today and is not involved in the current merger efforts.

Merger was on and off the agenda throughout the next seven decades – 1950’s SAG president Ronald Reagan, for instance, was opposed, quipping that his disliked big unions as much as big government – but the most recent attempts to merge led to failure, in 1998 and 2003.

In both cases, AFTRA passed the resolution, but SAG didn’t. It takes a 60 percent affirmative vote within each union in order to pass a merger referendum. SAG’s 2003 vote was 57.78 percent in favor, or about 2 percent shy of the requisite number.

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This time, the ballots will probably go out in February, with a return date in March. Will the results be different? Quite possibly. SAG’s Hollywood division was previously the nexus of significant opposition to merger, but its political climate seems to have changed. In the last four annual union elections, the division has voted for pro-merger candidates – indeed, overwhelmingly so in the last two or three cycles.

Those candidates, running under the Unite for Strength banner, have run on an explicit merger platform, and it’s hard to interpret the last few years’ election results as anything but a strong endorsement of uniting the two unions.

AFTRA and SAG’s other divisions – New York and the regional branches – have not been a source of significant opposition to merger.

Ultimately, the SAG Hollywood group most strongly identified with opposition to merger – MembershipFirst – collapsed altogether. Still, merger opponents and skeptics do remain, principally in SAG Hollywood. A key concern is the shape of the pension and health plans, a matter that will be determined by the plans themselves – they’re separate legal entities – and not by the merger proposal or the union voters.

The name of the new union – which has not been revealed – is also a potential source of controversy among some SAG loyalists – unless, of course, the name starts with “Screen Actors Guild.”

Without scientific polling, its impossible to predict the results of a merger referendum, but turnout may be a key factor. Although SAG has about 125,000 members and AFTRA 77,000 (about 44,000 performers are members of both unions), the 60 percent threshold is calculated based on the number voting, not the total membership. Turnout for union votes is typically 20 percent - 25 percent, though a higher turnout is likely in this case.


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