John J. Sweeney, president of the 13-million-member AFL-CIO, has endorsed the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists' proposed consolidation.
In a formal statement last week, Sweeney declared that forming a new, larger union "will give actors, broadcasters and recording artists a stronger voice in a climate of change in the entertainment industry."
While brief, Sweeney's statement immediately aligned major issues before SAG and AFTRA -- which are both members of the AFL-CIO -- with identical problems facing all the mammoth union's members.
"Employees in the entertainment industry face many of the same issues as employees in other industries in regards to health care, pensions and wages," Sweeney contended. "With an umbrella organization, nearly 150,000 members will have greater leverage to improve working conditions as large media companies continue to consolidate operations."
SAG currently has about 100,000 members and AFTRA 80,000, with some 40,000 performers as members of both unions. Their leaders figure that combining the two groups will give them a combined head count of about 150,000.
"The AFL-CIO commends SAG and AFTRA for pursuing a plan that would unite the nation's two largest entertainment unions in a new organization and effectively address the challenges facing them," Sweeney concluded.
SAG and AFTRA's combined boards in February voted 141-3 to create an umbrella union made up of three affiliates: actors, broadcasters, and recording artists -- each with its own ability to bargain contracts and include local branches. The umbrella union would primarily be responsible for handling finances, providing administrative services, and resolving disputes among any affiliates or their local branches. The umbrella also would ultimately handle all staffing, but in collaboration with the affiliates.
SAG and AFTRA attempted to merge in '98 and '99. AFTRA members voted for merger, but a majority of SAG members voted no, defeating a 10-year effort to meld the two unions. The AFL-CIO was not involved in the merger attempt, and so gave no endorsement.
Sweeney's recent statement came following a week of AFL-CIO executive committee meetings in Florida. Melissa Gilbert, SAG's national president, and John Connolly, AFTRA's chief executive, both attended those meetings, scheduling a private consultation with Sweeney and a breakfast presentation to the executive panel.
While the two performers unions have been a part of the AFL-CIO for years, a real bond seemed to occur near the end of the SAG-AFTRA bitter six-month strike against the ad industry in 2000. When it appeared the advertisers wouldn't budge, Sweeney appeared in Bryant Park in New York City's Midtown with SAG and AFTRA leaders, calling a nationwide AFL-CIO boycott against Procter & Gamble products. Within a week, advertisers signed a new pact.
SAG has realized a complete change in elected leadership since that time, but Gilbert, on taking office two years ago, quickly aligned with Sweeney and the great union, as did Connolly on AFTRA's side. The two performers unions' presidents over the last few months have chaired union relations committees, which confidentially hammered out the proposed consolidation that eventually went to the two unions' boards in February. The AFL-CIO took part in those planning discussions.
Gilbert, Connolly Speak
Heading into the AFL-CIO executive meetings last week, Gilbert and Connolly released a nearly 800-word joint statement pushing consolidation to their memberships. The message opened with a restatement of the major issues facing the two unions: digital technology that has caused a jurisdictional battle between SAG and AFTRA, and six media conglomerates dominating the entertainment industry.
"We must be responsive to these changes," the two leaders stressed. "We must take the necessary steps now to keep our unions vital and to protect the terms and conditions of our employment. We have no choice but to find ways to strengthen our unions to leverage our power and influence at the bargaining table. And we need to take those steps now."
Connolly and Gilbert explained that the rapid expansion of digital production has caused SAG and AFTRA to "spend precious resources maintaining and expanding jurisdiction which creates a state of conflict and rewards the producers with an opportunity to play the two unions off against each other. We need to use our valuable resources to organize new work. As the two institutions battle each other, employers drive down your wages and limit progress at the negotiating table. In addition, the effects of a struggling economy take their toll on union pension and health plans, putting our most basic benefits at risk."
The two leaders stressed that the next step in the consolidation process is to hear from members, who should call or write the unions via e-mail, mail, or fax.
The unions' two boards will consider a proposed constitution and consolidation plans when they meet again on April 5 in Washington, D.C. If approved there, the consolidation will be subject to a vote by members of both unions.