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Interview

Two For One

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Many actors are members of not just one union but two—sometimes three. This means multiple sets of dues, multiple pension and health plans with separate qualification requirements, and multiple sets of leadership. Why not combine the unions, especially in an era in which the unions are facing increasing employer consolidation?

The idea has been kicking around since the early days of the Screen Actors Guild. On Apr. 13, 2003, the national boards of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists approved a plan to consolidate the two unions into a new organization, the Alliance of International Media Artists (AIMA), which would include three affiliates: SAG for actors, AFTRA for broadcasters, and the new American Federation of Recording Artists (AFRA).

Proponents of the consolidation plan say now is the time. They point to increased media consolidation that has seen 29 major employers of performers reduced to six powerful conglomerates—making it harder for individual unions to bargain against them. They emphasize wanting to avoid a costly jurisdictional war between unions over digitally shot entertainment. They stress the money that could be saved if staff functions were combined, and they point to the possibility that pension and health plans (managed separately from the unions) could be combined, as well.

The last time a merger was proposed—in 1998—a bitter dispute ensued, and the plan was eventually voted down. This time, however, union presidents say they have spent months making sure all the previous objections are addressed. The current opposing minority is indeed much smaller than it was in 1998 (only 13 percent of the board now, as opposed to 38 percent in 1998), but there is still a vocal group that claims merging is not in the best interest of actors, believing that actors will lose voting power and control over their dues. (See accompanying story.)

Back Stage West recently sat down with SAG president Melissa Gilbert and AFTRA president John Connolly to address their opponents' most pressing concerns about the AIMA plan, and most important, to find out how the proposed consolidation will affect the average actor. SAG's national executive director/chief executive officer Robert Pisano and AFTRA's national executive director Greg Hessinger were also on hand to answer questions.

For members who have their own questions about consolidation, SAG and AFTRA will be holding a series of informational meetings between now and June 6 in cities throughout the country. See www.sag.com for a complete schedule. Actors will also soon receive all AIMA organizational documents for consideration. Ballots will go out in early June and are due back by the end of that month. Joint members are asked to return ballots for both unions. A 60 percent vote is required for approval.

Back Stage West: Let's start off generally. Why consolidation, and why now?

Melissa Gilbert: Now is the time when digital has really become a tremendous issue for us…. All of the predictions that were made in '98 when everybody said, "Well, that's not going to happen," have actually happened. The industry-wide consolidation is tremendous. We had 20-some-odd players, now we have six. We're facing this huge onslaught of the use of digital, particularly in television, and that produces a potential conflict for the two unions. And [consolidation] doesn't seem like it's happened very quickly. The two unions have been talking about [consolidation] since 1939….

John Connolly: What we decided to do early on in this process of consolidation was to take a hard look at the questions and concerns that many members had about the '98 process and try to address those challenges, and we think we've addressed every single one. At first a lot of us weren't sure whether this was really the way we wanted to go. It didn't seem like what we had done before, and we realized, it isn't what we did before. We rethought it.… And the reason to do it now is, quite frankly, this is probably the last opportunity that we are going to have to do this, before the technology drives us into conflict. That is bad for all performers, and we won't go there, and the way to make sure we don't go there is to unite our forces.

Gilbert: I was actually just talking to a former president of the Screen Actors Guild, Barry Gordon, who was telling me that way back when he was president, people were talking about digital. And everybody was saying, "Oh, please, that's never going to happen," and now USC film school for television stopped teaching film this past winter. They are only teaching digital.

Connolly: I was on an FCC forum panel yesterday with Jerry Eisenburg, who was a network exec and a very successful producer of miniseries and movies of the week, and he is now the dean of what is called the electronic media program at USC…. They don't even call it TV or film. And he was talking about how the process in television will be almost completely digital within less than two years. UPN and WB, by the end of next season, will be as close to 100 percent digital as we can imagine. All of John Wells' shows are going digital, and within two seasons, every dramatic show and comedy on television will be shot on digital, and so this is the moment. Since the technologies are converging, the unions should converge, as well.

BSW: How, specifically, do you think consolidation would lead to stronger contracts?

Connolly: There is one fundamental, which is true and demonstrable. If you have two institutions competing for the same work, a couple of things are going to happen: Most likely, the one that offers the better deal to the employers is going to get the coverage, the jurisdiction—given that everybody has signed the contracts. And secondly, and this is equally important, if two unions representing the same performers are competing for the same work, we are wasting money, because we are spending the resources of two separate institutions to try to get to the same place. By combining the unions, you take dollars that otherwise you are using to compete against the other organization, and you are taking those dollars and pointing them where they really need to go, which is to organizing the industry.

Gilbert: We are talking about approximately 45,000 members who are dual cardholders right now.

BSW: What practical, day-to-day changes would your average working actor notice if consolidation takes place?

Gilbert: One set of dues. One single dues structure for everybody.

BSW: For those who are not dual SAG/AFTRA members, will their dues go up or down?

Connolly: Folks who are members of both unions, their [overall] dues will tend to go down. For those who are members of the same single union, dues will either stay the same or rise a little bit. But that is not a foregone conclusion; it really has to do with how much you work, because the working [income] is what determines how much dues you pay. So the other thing that people will notice immediately—and I believe immediately—is the number of union reps on sets, because by combining operations of the organization, we are going to be able to free people up who now push paper in two different organizations. By automating some of our paper-pushing activities, some of our back-office activities, we want to free up human resources, to get more representatives on the set, to enforce our contracts, and get more organizers on the street to organize the increase of work, which is tending to go non-union.

BSW: If the unions combine, will it be easier for people who didn't have enough work under each union separately to get benefits?

Gilbert: Potentially, yes. One of the great advantages of this is that we have been told it is feasible for these two unions to merge our health plans…. It is the intention of the trustees—which are a separate organization—to examine and figure out every way they can to make this merger of plans happen. And once that happens, they will be so much stronger that there will inevitably be more of an opportunity for our members to earn more, therefore to qualify. There will be more of an opportunity for us to provide benefits to them because the plan will be so much stronger.

Connolly: Combining health plans is, relatively speaking, a snap—when you compare it to pension plans. Pension plans are governed by a very, very exacting system of laws and regulations, which are designed, properly, to protect the pensions that workers have earned. The good news is, everybody's pension is absolutely safe—no matter where we go in bringing the unions together. Bringing the unions together also will make it possible to merge the health plans. It will never, ever happen unless these unions unite, because that's the motivating factor. If you have two separate organizations, what is their motivation for uniting their benefit plans?

BSW: I've read that one of the problems with merging pension and health is that 50 percent of the fund's trustees are, effectively, management. So it's not necessarily in their best interests to have a merged union. How are you going to overcome that obstacle?

Connolly: …One of the reasons that the health and pensions plans are separate from the unions themselves is, that's the way the law is set up. Also under those laws, half the trustees are appointed by the unions, half are appointed by management. The good news is, management and union trustees are required by law, under the sanction of criminal penalties, that their actions can only be in the interests of the participants in the plans. So the management trustees cannot act in the best interests of their companies; and at the same time, union trustees cannot act only in the best interests of the union. They must act in the best interests of the participants, the people who are covered by the plans. So there is a real stringent legal standard that people have to obey. If the studies that we are conducting show that there are going to be important efficiencies and benefits to the participants and members by combining the health plans, they are under a lot of pressure to do it.

Gilbert: I'll tell you something else. If talking about putting these two unions together is making the management trustees—i.e. our employers—nervous, we are on the right track.

BSW: A lot of people are concerned with what will happen to actors' dues money. Will it go to support other groups within AIMA?

Gilbert: What you are talking about, ultimately, is: Who has the power? Who makes the ultimate decisions? The AIMA board has 35 members. Potentially, 25 of those members would be from the actors affiliate. That is an overwhelming majority…. So the people who will be approving the budgets will be those people.

BSW: How does that money get allocated, though?

Gilbert: According to proportional representation, based on the revenues generated by the membership.

Robert Pisano: …The new constitution requires that, in essence, money in is in proportion to money out. Fair share.

Greg Hessinger: …We have a constitution that says the revenues have to be allocated consistent with the way they are collected. On top of that, the AIMA council is going to make a decision about how those monies get allocated and it is going to apply that rule. Twenty-five of the 35 are actors. Four more seats are controlled in the voting by actors, so you have anywhere between 25 to 29 seats filled by actors on that council, where a 50 percent vote governs. There is no way anyone can reasonably argue that the actors don't still control their own destiny when it comes to the revenue.

BSW: Another concern I've heard is that actors will lose their right to ratify a contract and lose their right to have a final strike vote.

Gilbert: That's absolutely untrue.

BSW: So will the contract ratification process change at all under AIMA?

Connolly: Not unless all the members of a given affiliate decide to change it. That is, all the Screen Actors Guild members. They have the vote.

BSW: Say AIMA were in place right now, and something were to come up for a vote, such as the talent agency franchise agreement. Would that then go out to every actor member, or would it need to be approved by this council only?

Gilbert: That's one of the things the members would have to approve. It's constitutionally mandated.

Pisano: …The constitution couldn't be clearer that the franchise agreement, first of all, needs to be negotiated and agreed on by the board of the affiliate and then has to go to a referendum of the membership, just the way it is in the Screen Actors Guild.

Gilbert: People will point out, too, that we've somehow created this language in there referring to the "affected members" of the affiliate. That language is already in the SAG constitution. It has always been there.

Hessinger: And, in fact, the only meaningful change that was made is that the threshold for membership referendum has been raised. The SAG constitution currently provides that it has to go to referendum if there is going to be an increase in commissions. But now this constitution says that if financial interest rules are included, that has to go to referendum, as well. So, if anything, the bar has been raised, and referendum is required in more cases than it was before.

BSW: Other unions, like the Writers and Directors guilds, have voting requirements, under which members must qualify by having done a certain amount of work, to vote on contracts or in elections. Is that something that would happen under AIMA?

Connolly: That's up to the members. It's not in the proposed constitution….

BSW: You've talked about getting rid of the three-voucher entry system to the union, by which many extras have joined SAG. Any thoughts brewing as to what might replace that?

Gilbert: The ball is in the background community's court to come to the board with a recommendation that we can consider…. They know what their requirements and needs are, what the work is. They need to come up with this, and then the transitional board will approve it and we'll move on from there.

Connolly: We're all committed to raising the bar for membership.

Gilbert: The three-voucher system is horrendously corrupt, and it's something that we've heard about for a long time, and everybody has finally thrown their hands up and said, "Let's start anew."

BSW: What is the biggest misperception about consolidation that you would like to address?

Connolly: From my point of view, it's none of the specifics we've talked about. It's this: There is a small layer of people out there who are afraid of change. I understand it. Me, too. But we are confronted with a reality that we need to change and evolve to the next stage, because performers need more power. This is the road to increasing our power, to protect and defend performers' rights as artists and workers. I know how scary change is, but it is time. We've been discussing this since 1939….

Gilbert: The other huge misperception out there is that there has not been a full and open debate… that we are rushing this, that we are not allowing a minority report because we are afraid of something. The fact of the matter is, in our boardroom there was a minority opinion that did not want to pass this thing. We debated it for about seven hours, and I heard more from the minority voices in the room—which I technically should not have allowed—than I did from the other people in the room who got up over and over again to ask questions and express their displeasure. There was a tremendous amount of free and open debate in that room.

BSW: So why not include the minority report with the voting materials you send out?

Gilbert: Because the constitution requirement for a minority of 25 percent was not met. And why should the members' dues money—when they have entrusted us to make these decisions for them—go towards a minority report? You are talking about a tremendous expense here, when an overwhelming majority of people who have been entrusted to make this decision come back and say, "OK, this is what we want to do"…. The actual drafting process of going through every single comma and period took months of effort on the part of elected members of both unions….

Connolly: And those months, those were not just discussions of grammar…. They were heavy-duty fights within these committees over what this new organization should look like, should be, what is the democratic content. It was six months of incredibly intense work, and what was really admirable about it was that people who went into this process at opposite ends of the spectrum found a way to come together for the good of all….

In our boardroom, it was 10-to-1 and then some. It was more like 15-to-1 in the final vote…. And the minority opinions I respect, but they are the smallest minorities that we've seen in the last 10 to 15 years of these unions.

Hessinger: To be precise, the percentage in the AFTRA boardroom in favor was 89 percent, in the SAG boardroom, 87 percent….

Gilbert: Another misrepresentation is that there isn't enough time to educate members, that we are trying to ram this past the membership, which absolutely can't be further from the truth. We are mandated to a 45-day period of education between when the vote is taken and when the referendum goes out. And there are informational meetings that are about to be announced and are going to be happening that the members can attend all over the country, and everybody is getting all of these documents…. so they can read it for themselves in 45 days before making a decision.

BSW: Let's say that AIMA is approved. Can you sketch out what the transition will look like? What is the timeline?

Gilbert: One of the documents that has gone out is a transition plan, as well. And basically it says that the currently elected boards will remain in place. John and I will become co-presidents, Bob and Greg will become co-NEDs, and AFTRA will elect a transitional committee that is the same in size as the SAG National Executive Committee—25—and that will be the smaller, day-to-day committee to deal with emergent issues. We only have one or two full board meetings planned before the transition period is over and the inaugural election, and then convention happens in summer of 2004.

Connolly: Say the votes are counted on June 30. If it is a yes vote, the next day is the effective date of the consolidation, which means from Day One the new transition leadership has from July 1 until next June to do the mechanical work of combining staffs, of finding the methods of putting the actual organizations together. A lot of that work is being studied now, so we are not going to start with no information. But we figure you need an eight- to 10-month transition period, and you need to set up an electoral process so that the new union can have its own leadership. That will take place next spring. There will be elections for the affiliate officers and board, the president and secretary/treasurer of AIMA, and the convention delegates, leading to a founding convention probably about June.

BSW: Are either of you interested in the AIMA presidency?

Gilbert: That's so far ahead.

Connolly: Look, let's burn one bridge at a time. [Laughter.]

Gilbert: I've already had to get elected twice in three months, I can't even bear the fact that my term is up this fall….

BSW: Post-June 2004, what size board are we talking about for the actors' affiliate?

Connolly: It will be exactly the same as SAG's, so about 72.

Gilbert: And that's based on proportional representation, which is re-evaluated every two years.

BSW: Is there any talk about including Equity, AGMA, AGVA?

Connolly: Unprompted, and unasked by us, Actors' Equity voted unanimously to congratulate us on this and support it. Actors' Equity is my parent union. I'm a stage rat—always have been and always will be, I have a deep, personal affection for Equity, and it was impressive for me that they chose to do this.… They understand what's happening in the industry, because, you know, the mom-and-pop Broadway producers no longer exist. They are dealing with Clear Channel and Disney on Broadway. They see what's going down. And their perspective is that AFTRA and SAG have got this right. We want it to work, because, you know what? We may be next in line to talk to you guys about this. So they are wishing us well.

BSW: I've heard people say, "This is going to create such a huge, expensive bureaucracy, and services will have to be cut as a result of that."

Connolly: That is exactly, precisely the opposite of the truth. Right now we have two unions…. We have two organizations, which are spending a significant amount of resources in duplicate back-office functions…. In L.A. and New York we are occupying two sets of pretty expensive real estates because there is no alternative. Now just the money we can save by consolidating our real estate and back-office work means we are going to be able to provide more services. We are going to put more people where our members really need them: on the sets and organizing this industry.

BSW: What are the projections as to how much money could be saved?

Pisano: There is a five-year plan that shows about a $12 million to $15 million reduction.

BSW: What if this isn't approved? What is then on the map?

Gilbert: It is sort of impossible to consider. We have a negotiation this fall that we have to go into.

Connolly: To go too deeply into "what ifs" on that side is essentially to condone suicide. And I won't do that. We are going to unite these organizations because it's what's best for performers.

BSW: This may be one of your last interviews as presidents of separate unions. Any parting thoughts?

Connolly: This June I will have been an actor for 32 years from the first day I set foot onstage and got paid for it. This is how I have earned my living, with pride and love for a really long time. It's all I've ever done with my adult life. I'm proud of my work. I'm amazed that I've been able to do it. And nothing I have done as an actor, as an artist, or as a leader of working people am I more sure of and more proud of than the process we've engaged in. To be able to partner with Melissa Gilbert, leading this effort in unifying these unions after so many years of discussion is one of the greatest privileges I've had and one of the greatest services I could possibly render to my members.

Gilbert: I have to say, I've got five years on you as an actor. I've got 37 years.

Connolly: I pointed this out at a joint board meeting. I said, "It's really frustrating to be sitting next to an attractive, wonderful actress who is 15 years younger, and has been working five years longer than me!"

Gilbert: I am just so proud of the committees that have worked on this thing. Even with the debate, it was civilized, it was respectable, it was an extraordinarily moving thing to be a part of.

Connolly: We see an emerging culture for these two unions and the new union-to-be based on solidarity, respect, and affection. Those values take us right back to the stage door, because, without those values, you can't put on a show—even if you've got a barn and mom's got a rug. That goes for television, movies, radio, or TV news. So that emerging culture is what is going to carry us forward. And it is the emerging culture that employers are afraid of, but our members love. BSW

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