SAG-AFTRA's Year One Scorecard

One union is more harmonious than two, but major, concrete accomplishments have not yet materialized.

Ben Affleck, Seth MacFarlane, Oprah Winfrey – in Hollywood, hyphenates are king. 

But has Hollywood’s hyphenated actors union been more successful than its two independent predecessors? A year after the Screen Actors Guild and its smaller rival, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, voted March 30, 2012, to create the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA, insiders point to internal tension. SAG-AFTRA board members formerly affiliated with SAG and those formerly affiliated with AFTRA not infrequently bicker, or just don’t see eye to eye. Some point to a lack of respect on member committees and jockeying for position.

Tensions exist on the now 550-member staff as well. Several weeks after the merger, former AFTRA chief Kim Roberts Hedgpeth stepped down, leaving former SAG head David White as the sole national executive director of the new union. The senior leadership is now weighted toward SAG.

And yet, those stresses and strains now play out internally, and at a simmer -- not a boil. One actors’ union is much more harmonious than two.

In any case, some of this is just inside baseball, and SAG-AFTRA leadership maintains that the single union has benefited all actors. “I sense a deeper pride in members because of their vote to create this new union,” says union co-president (and former AFTRA president) Roberta Reardon. “Our success will be measured over decades,” adds fellow co-president (and former SAG president) Ken Howard.

Leaders point to a hard-won music video contract as evidence of success, but that deal is a small one. SAG-AFTRA is currently negotiating with the advertising industry over a renewal of its lucrative commercials contract. Until the results of those talks are known, it’s impossible to judge whether a merged union turned out to be stronger than its two predecessors bargaining jointly.

A far harder test will come in early 2014, when bargaining begins for a new TV/theatrical contract. That will mean merging the legacy SAG and AFTRA contracts, which are still separate, and fighting for gains from an industry whose mantra is “cost containment.”

Certainly one disappointment so far has been in pension and health benefits. Although the unions merged, the separately controlled benefit plans didn’t. That means that when SAG-AFTRA actors work under a SAG contract they get credit from the SAG plan and likewise with the AFTRA contract and plan.

Even a year later, the plans haven’t figured out how to grant reciprocal credit. The divided system deprives too many actors of health and pension benefits because their credits are split, but “the work required to create a unified plan is in progress,” says executive vp Ned Vaughn.

Next on the agenda are the SAG-AFTRA elections and September convention. Howard, Reardon and Vaughn all declined to say whether they will run again. That’s the guessing game du jour, as is the question of whether they will have strong opponents. Former anti-merger activists have been quiet over the last year, and several declined to say whether they would run.

And after elections, pension and health restructuring and TV/theatrical negotiations, then what? It’s tough to tell. Says White, “The main accomplishment of this merger was to shift the very landscape of opportunity.” Translation: the merger process still has a ways to go. We’ll check back in a year and see what that landscape looks like.