Staff Reporter

After decades of discussing a merger, Hollywood's two actors' unions may finally unite but not without opposition from some of the industry's best-known performers.

Voting will close Monday night on a proposal by members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists to merge the two unions. The results will be announced by the end of the week.

If the merger goes through, there will be a new union, SAG-AFTRA, which would represent 120,000 actors, singers, dancers, stuntmen and TV newscasters. Sixty-two percent of SAG members are also members of AFTRA, and since 1981 the two unions have been negotiating contracts collectively. But they maintain independent management and dues structures, and jurisdictional disputes are common.

The national boards of both unions have endorsed the merger, saying it would give actors greater clout in dealing with Hollywood producers, studios and TV networks. But there is substantial opposition from such Hollywood stalwarts as Charlton Heston and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who support an opposition group called Save SAG. Other opponents of the merger include Martin Landau, Robert Culp and Richard Roundtree.

"It's a bad idea," said Heston, a former SAG president. "I am a member of both unions and if they unite, it is going to be a mess. It's a terrible idea."

Opponents argue that a merger isn't necessary because the unions already bargain as one. Further, they say, the interests of the actors served by SAG are not always the same as the interests of members of AFTRA, some of whom are TV newscasters and other personalities. And under the proposed merger, dues for members of both unions would increase.

Proponents maintain that both unions have been planning dues hikes for some time, but have put them off while plans for a merger unfolded. Heston objects to the proposed hike because the lowest earners would actually pay a greater increase than the industry's top moneymakers.

An actor who earns $100,000 or less, for example, will have to pay 1.3 percent of his annual income to the new union, while a performer who makes between $100,000 and $400,000 will only pay 0.3 percent, according to SAG documents.

"The higher earners have said, 'We won't accept a raise in dues,' " Heston said. "That means the lower earners will have to."

Richard Masur, president of the Screen Actors Guild, said both unions are running at huge deficits and needed to increase their revenues. Management at SAG, he said, hasn't had a raise in 12 years.

Masur believes the merger is necessary to end the jurisdictional disputes that have plagued both unions and which could get worse with the advent of high-definition television. Currently, AFTRA generally has jurisdiction over video production, particularly TV news, while SAG has jurisdiction over film production but with the new technology, it's unclear which union would take the lead.

"There will be tremendous areas of conflict between SAG and AFTRA," Masur said. "It doesn't serve any member (of either organization) to have both (unions) assert jurisdiction over the exact same work in the exact same medium."

Uniting the two unions follows a national pattern of merging labor unions that have similar interests in related industries.

"The auto workers, steel workers and machinists are merging. Overall, unions see that it is in their best interests to consolidate their resources," said Kent Wong, director the UCLA Labor Center.

Sherrie Mazingo, an expert in media economics at the University of Minnesota, endorsed the idea of a merger. "I only see benefits of the united power of a singular union," she said. "This gives the partners a hell of a lot of power at the bargaining table."

The rise of the multinational media company with vertically integrated platforms for film, television, cable, music and live theater has accelerated the move toward a merger, which the two unions have been discussing since the 1930s.

Masur said the consolidation of entertainment companies is dramatically decreasing the number of employers in the industry, which gives management an edge in any negotiation. "Ultimately, we will be working for one company," Masur said.

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