Tensions High as SAG and AFTRA Prepare for Merger Results

The leadership of the two unions wants to pool its resources, but a vocal group of opponents claim merger would be a disaster for their health and pension plans

Last Updated: March 30, 2012 @ 6:09 AM

Tensions are high as the members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists brace for the results of a vote on a proposed merger that would bring the two unions together under one roof.

Ballots have been shipped to 131,000 members  of both unions and the results will be announced on Friday.

The final vote has yet to be tallied, but the proposed merger cleared a major hurdle this week.

Also read: SAG-AFTRA Merger: Judge Won't Block Vote

In a devastating setback to opponents of the proposal, federal judge James Otero on Wednesday rejected a lawsuit that would have blocked a vote on the plan to join the unions. 

Over 60 SAG members, including such household names as Martin Sheen and Ed Harris,  has signed on to the lawsuit, which asked the court to require the union to perform a study on the effects that a merger will have on benefits.

Otero said there was insufficient evidence SAG had violated labor laws and that the planned merger should be decided by the membership. 

Outside of the courtroom battle, supporters of the plan have long argued that merging the two unions will improve their negotiating power with studios and other media companies while strengthening their pension and health plans.

Also read: SAG Merger Opponents File Suit to Prevent Vote

“It addresses a number of problems that exist right now, namely the fact that we’re in a situation where our employers have a choice to negotiate with SAG or AFTRA,” Ned Vaughn, 1st vice president of SAG and chair of its Hollywood board, told TheWrap. “We can’t be divided at the bargaining table.”

Merger boosters also claim that benefits will not be negatively impacted by bringing the two unions together, and that combining the plans will allow them to save on administrative costs.

The merger needs approval from 60 percent of the voters of both unions, something that eluded SAG and AFTRA when they tried to pull off a similar marriage in 2003.

Vaughn and Roberta Reardon, president of AFTRA, say that  they are confident the results this time will be different, because the two unions have expended more effort on outreach to their memberships.

They say that they have spent the last 22 months hosting forums across the country, listening to members’ concerns, and crafting a plan that will better position actors to negotiate contracts for emerging media platforms.

Also read: CEO of SAG Pension Plan Accused of Embezzlement Cover-Up (Exclusive)

“The thing that really drove this campaign is that the changes in the industry have been so profound that I think our members recognize that the way we’re doing business isn’t the best way,” Reardon said. “A lot of people didn’t expect it to happen so quickly and as cable is growing and the internet is growing, we need to be one union and have the power that being one union brings with it.”

Opponents vigorously reject the portrait of an open and transparent process. They claim that their objections have been steamrolled by a well-funded marketing campaign that has ignored the possible negative consequences that marrying the unions could have on benefit packages. They also say that SAG and AFTRA have not done their due diligence in studying the ramifications that merging the plans will have on benefits.

“Without our action and without our public stance, this dialogue would have never happened,” Anne-Marie Johnson, a 14-year Screen Actors Guild national board member and former 1st Vice President, told TheWrap.  “Without it, members would never have had a glimpse of the other side, because the Screen Actors Guild has done a superior job of allowing only one side of the coin to be seen.”

Sowing further seeds of discontent was the removal on Tuesday of Robert Carlson as a trustee of the SAG's pension and health plans by SAG’s Hollywood board. Carlson,  a trustee for the past seven years, went public with his concerns that merging the health and pension plans would have to negative impact on benefits in a court declaration this month.

Carlson told TheWrap he is weighing legal action.

“I’m disappointed,” Carlson told TheWrap. “I think the Hollywood board went out of their way to find an excuse to remove me.”

Opponents of the merger believed that SAG’s decision to oust Carlson was vindictive — a charge SAG refutes.

"If there had been any desire to remove Robert Carlson as a trustee because of his well-known opposition to merger, I expect it would have happened long before any merger referendum,” Vaughn said. “The fact is Mr. Carlson took specific actions that undermined the board's confidence in his ability to continue as a trustee – it’s that simple."

Also read: SAG, AFTRA Release Details of Proposed Merger

Another public relations headache for merger backers has been Craig Simmons, a former human resources executive at the Screen Actors Guild–Producers Pension & Health Plans, the independent organization that administers actors benefits programs.

In a lawsuit against his former employer and in a labor department complaint, Simmons has alleged that SAG-PPHP CEO Bruce Dow covered up embezzlement at the nonprofit and used the plans to reward lucrative contracts to his family members.

After launching an independent investigation, the board of SAG-PPHP asserted that a review of the charges by an outside counsel concluded that the bulk of the accusations were false, but found that a former employee misappropriated some $2 million of funds. The board said the plans were secure.

Yet Simmons has been a staple at anti-merger meetings and his assertions that the plans are in shaky financial shape have registered with opponents of any move to join the two unions.

“We’re all terrified,” Warren Berlinger, a SAG member of 65 years and an opponent of the plan, said. “When we ask questions about the pensions and benefits, the response is that we’re cuckoo birds.”

Reardon and Vaughn both acknowledge that if the merger goes through, there will be some bruised feelings, but maintain that the benefits of pooling resources will quickly become apparent.

In particular, Vaughn notes that negotiations on a commercials contract is scheduled for the fall and claims that the new bargaining muscle of the combined union will be key to successful negotiations.

They believe that if the benefits of merger become apparent, many of the fears of its fiercest critics will be put to rest.

“In life, there are always some people who are not happy with what is happening,” Reardon said. “But we will try to be as open and inclusive as possible to all points of view and we welcome disagreement, because we’re not Stepford Wives here.” 

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