SAG Merger Skeptics Retain Law Firm (Exclusive)


It took nearly a century, but film and television actors might finally be close to joining forces in a single union.

It’s unclear whether the anonymous group will actually bring suit or be able to delay a SAG-AFTRA merger referendum even if they do; meanwhile, the process moves forward, with union board meetings tomorrow and next weekend.

Declaring themselves “hesitant” to support the proposed merger of SAG and AFTRA, a group of unnamed SAG actors posted a statement saying that they have retained a local law firm “to represent us in our legal quest to compel SAG to conduct a feasibility/impact study [regarding the effect of merger on the SAG pension and health plan] and publicly announce the results of the study prior to the merger referendum vote.”

The previously unreported statement, which appears on the site and is undated, goes on to say that “we now believe we must take legal action in order to secure the information all members MUST have before voting on the merger question.”

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In response, SAG first vice president Ned Vaughn told The Hollywood Reporter “Democracy is the answer – not litigation.” Alluding to SAG member support for pro-merger candidates he added, “this group is hoping to take the decision out of members’ hands because there’s been so little support for their goal of keeping us divided.”

Whether such action has real potential to delay or derail the merger process is unclear. Indeed, it’s unknown whether a lawsuit will even materialize: the website and recent emails are soliciting donations to pay the lawyers, and there’s no indication of how much has been raised. Also difficult to determine is whether such a lawsuit would also name the SAG pension and health plan and/or AFTRA.

Meanwhile, the merger process continues. The SAG and AFTRA boards are meeting tomorrow in Los Angeles and New York for a videoconference briefing on the merger package approved last week by the unions’ joint Group for One Union. The session will be informational; the board votes are scheduled for next weekend. Approval by the boards is a virtual certainty, and a high-profile balloting kickoff announcement by SAG president Ken Howard and AFTRA president Roberta Reardon is expected at next Sunday’s nationally-televised SAG Awards.

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Ballots would then likely be sent to roughly 150,000 voting members of the two unions in mid- to late-February, with a return date in March. A court might hesitate to spark chaos by issuing an injunction once the ballots are in the mail, but litigation prior to the board votes next weekend would run the risk of being dismissed as premature.

Taken together, these factors suggest that an anti-merger lawsuit or other legal action, if any, would most strategically be filed in the first couple weeks of February – probably early in that time frame, in order to ensure that the suit reaches a courtroom before the ballots have a chance to hit the mail.

Again, to emphasize: it’s unknown whether legal action will be filed at all.

Attempts to reach the anti-merger website’s owners were unsuccessful, and the named law firm, Wasserman, Comden, Casselman & Esensten, did not respond to several emails.

Opposition to merger, or skepticism, is by all indications a minority position. SAG Hollywood voters handed pro-merger board candidates a victory in 2008 and have voted consistently – and, in the past two years, overwhelmingly – for candidates from the Unite for Strength group, who have run on a platform focused on merger.

Previously, the guild’s Hollywood division was home base for the anti-AFTRA MembershipFirst group, which controlled the union from 2005-2009. MF collapsed, although a few of its members, including two of its former leaders, Anne-Marie Johnson and David Jolliffe, remain on the guild’s national board.

In contrast to SAG Hollywood, the guild’s New York and regional branch divisions, and AFTRA, have been perceived as largely pro-merger for many years. In 1998 and again in 2003, AFTRA voters approved merger proposals by over the requisite 60% threshold. The SAG votes fell short, with the guild tally hitting about 58% in 2003 – a majority, but not the required supermajority.

UFS, in combination with New York’s United Screen Actors Nationwide and allies in the regional branches, have controlled the union since early 2009, although they didn’t attain the presidency until later that year, when Howard won a plurality in a three-way contest against Johnson and Seymour Cassell. Howard was easily reelected last fall in the face of token opposition.

Speaking of the merger proposal, Howard and Reardon said last week, “What we have accomplished over the last year is tremendously gratifying.” They added, “We are confident our members will agree that we have created something we can all be proud of.”

A merger opponent aware of some details of the proposal had a different view:  this proposal “makes AIMA look like a gift,” the source told The Hollywood Reporter, referring to the 2003 plan that was derided by opponents and narrowly defeated.

Opponents and skeptics have highlighted pension and health issues, claiming that the new union’s P&H plans are destined to be worse than the existing SAG plans. However, it’s not obvious why this would be so: federal law provides certain protections in the pension arena and, beyond that, the issue is so shrouded in economic uncertainty and actuarial miasma that firm conclusions are difficult.

Supporters also point to P&H issues, arguing that more actors will reach the qualifying thresholds for pension and health coverage when their work is no longer split between two unions. That will probably be true, though not until the unions’ pension and health plans also merge – a separate process, since the plans are legally distinct from the unions themselves.

Merger opponents claim that AFTRA is a weaker union and cuts deals too favorable to producers. They fear that a merged union would thus be less likely to stand up to studio demands, and also argue that merger would dilute SAG’s brand name and what they contend is the guild’s higher status.

In addition, some claim that much of AFTRA’s jurisdiction in the acting field is illegitimate, pointing to legal decisions and other matters dating to the dawn of commercial television in the early 1950s. (AFTRA also represents broadcasters and sound recording artists.)

The jurisdictional overlap between the two actors unions is unique, says Clark University professor Gary Chaison, and in his view, it makes no sense. “This is a merger that’s inevitable,” says Chaison, who’s an expert on the subject of union mergers.

That may turn out to be true – certainly the SAG elections over the last four years suggest as much – but without scientific polling, it’s impossible to know. Turnout could be key, and vigorous campaigns by supporters and opponents may drive participation above the 20%-25% that’s typical for union votes.

Of course, that’s assuming that a lawsuit doesn’t prevent the vote or inject a lengthy delay. Although expensive for all concerned, internecine SAG litigation would not be unprecedented: in 2009, then guild president Alan Rosenberg and three board members including Johnson sued the union in an attempt to stymie the newly-elected pro-merger majority. The litigation – which sought to block the new board from moving forward with studio negotiations and a change of guild staff leadership – was repeatedly rejected by the courts. The legal action delayed negotiations only by about two weeks, but nonetheless ground on for almost 18 months before fizzling out.


Twitter: @jhandel