Unions' Drive for Consolidation Up Against Ghosts of Past

Staff Reporter

Now comes the hard part.

After agreeing in principle on a plan to consolidate the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists into a single organization with three autonomous bargaining units, the two unions must tackle a host of longstanding territorial conflicts.

Some local SAG members have already started grumbling about proposed plans for a union leadership structure in which Los Angeles members would control a smaller percentage of board seats than they do now. They also object to having the new union's top three officials elected by delegates at a convention rather than through a direct vote, as is the case with SAG.

"There are a number of things that need to be fixed before I would vote on this, starting with the governance plan," said actor Terrence Beasor, a longtime member of both unions. "It opens the door to a lot of potential abuses. You could end up with a disc jockey from Des Moines being head of the union if he gets the support of enough delegates."

AFTRA President John Connolly sought to douse one emerging point of controversy by indicating that the headquarters of a combined union would almost certainly be in L.A.

"An argument could be made that New York is a good location because most of our employers are based in New York," Connolly said. "But my sense is that everyone is pretty much okay with the headquarters being in Los Angeles."

AFTRA is based in New York and SAG is headquartered in Los Angeles. More than half of the 135,000 actors, broadcasters and musicians who would be members of a combined union live in the Los Angeles area.

Details, details

Under the proposal, actors, broadcasters and musicians would each have their own bargaining units. The top officers would be delegates, as would the top two officials of each of three affiliate unions. The remaining 16 seats would be divided among the affiliates based on the proportion of their representation in the overall organization.

"They have struggled over a formula that allows for proportionality (by profession) and regional representation," said SAG Vice President Mike Farrell, an alternate on the joint committee that developed the proposal. "But when you are compressing things down to a 25-member board, everyone has to make some compromises."

Beasor said that while Los Angeles SAG members now control 57 percent of the board seats in that union, according to a formula based on where the work is done, there is no guarantee that such proportionality would transfer to the new board. Furthermore, the position of actors could be eroded on a board that includes equal numbers of recording artists and broadcasters.

"Of the three affiliates making up this union, actors bring in the most money, contribute the most to the health and pension plan, and the board should reflect that," he said.

The trick, both Connolly and Farrell acknowledged, is creating a board large enough to give all the diverse professions represented by the unions a seat at the table, while staying small enough to react quickly to a rapidly changing industry.

A case in the point is the transition to digital production methods in television and commercials. Both unions have claimed the right to represent actors, allowing producers to play one union off the other in some negotiations. Currently, SAG represents television, film and commercial actors, while AFTRA represents broadcasters, dancers, musicians and soap opera actors.

April deadline

Plans to merge SAG and AFTRA date back to the 1930s and some of the reasons cited for consolidation at that time improving administrative efficiency, building leverage, ending wasteful competition are much the same today as they were then. A 1999 merger bid was voted down by 54 percent of SAG members, many of who believed the consolidation attempt amounted to takeover of their union by the smaller AFTRA.

This time, faced with an October bargaining date with advertisers, union officials are eager to push their plan through as quickly as possible.

On April 5, the joint committee is scheduled to present a new constitution, business plan and transition outline at a joint board meeting in Washington. Upon board approval, which is widely anticipated, the proposal would go to members of the two unions for a vote. As in 1999, 60 percent of SAG and AFTRA members would have to approve the referendum for the consolidation to occur.

"The process has to be carried forward to a conclusion to protect all actors in the environment of industry consolidation we find ourselves in," said SAG Treasurer Kent McCord, who voted against the 1999 merger. McCord said he would withhold final judgment until he sees the proposal in its entirety.

Despite some inevitable disagreement, Connolly said it's critical for the unions to make this deal.

"There is a general sentiment that this is the way to go," he said. "This is not a romantic notion of comity and fraternal bliss. This is an absolute necessity for people who work in the media industries to build leverage in negotiations."

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