SAG camps take sides over benefits changes

Health and pension plans will increase starting Jan. 1

NEW YORK -- SAG's health and pension plans announced significant benefits reductions and premiums increases in a newsletter to members mailed Sept. 8, news that has become a political football in the race to lead the guild.

According to the newsletter, members will face higher health premiums beginning Jan. 1, and senior members who previously did not pay a premium must begin doing so. In addition, the pension-accrual rate will be reduced from 3.5% of covered earnings to 2%.

"This action does not reduce or in any way affect the benefits currently being paid to pensioners and their beneficiaries, nor does it in any way affect the amount of vested benefits accrued prior to January 1, 2010."

Unite for Strength and MembershipFirst partisans were quick to point fingers in the wake of the news.

In an e-mail to supporters, Ned Vaughn, a Unite for Strength Hollywood board candidate, blamed MembershipFirst's resistance to cooperation with AFTRA for the sorry state of the plans.

MembershipFirst fired back Friday with a message accusing Unite for Strength presidential candidate Ken Howard of releasing confidential information about the plans' changes in a campaign e-mail the morning before the newsletter was sent.

SAG 1st vp Anne Marie Johnson, running for president on the MembershipFirst slate, echoed her party's criticism of Howard. "That was quite disturbing that he would use the funds news as political fodder to demonstrate his acumen in the pension and health area, which he has none of," she said.

Johnson went on to defend the pension fund for having performed relatively well during an economic downturn that has laid waste to other pensions and blamed Howard and Unite for Strength for making the plans a political issue.

"We've never made the policies and procedures of the pension and health trustees an area which we politicize," she said.

Howard stood by Vaughn's assessment, linking the plans' future health to an improved relationship with AFTRA.

"There's no way our pension and health plans can operate at their current levels if SAG and AFTRA continue dividing the television market," Howard said. "That's why an eventual merger makes so much sense. Not only will it increase our bargaining power, but it will strengthen the security of our pension and health benefits. The go-it-alone approach will produce the opposite result."

A closer relationship and eventual merger with AFTRA is a central plank in Unite for Strength's platform. It is passionately opposed by MembershipFirst, and also by Seymour Cassel, the independent candidate for president.

"I saw this coming," Cassel said of the changes to the pension and health plans. "It's ridiculous. You've got a full pension, you spend 30, maybe 40 years working in this business, maybe more, and you're guaranteed nothing."

SAG election results will be announced Sept. 24.