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SAG Board Wants 30% Dues Hike

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The Screen Actors Guild national board of directors has called for a 30% increase in members' base annual dues, from $100 to $130. The overall dues increase would bring in $7.3 million annually, according to SAG.

The levy on earnings would rise only 0.1% on annual income up to $200,000, while SAG's initiation fee would jump 54%, from $1,356 to $2,085.

The SAG board last Sunday voted 80% to 20% for the increases, which would see actors earning over $200,000 annually face a work-dues hike from 0.5% to 1.0%, capping at $500,000.

The dues-hike recommendation now faces approval by the union's 120,000 members. The guild will mail ballots to all SAG members on May 7, with a return deadline of May 28.

The increase "would solidify the union's fiscal health, finance capital and technology investments to make the guild a 21st century organization, and amass a war chest of resources in advance of pivotal upcoming negotiations with producers," SAG said in a press release. "While operations have been streamlined and spending significantly curtailed by the guild's leadership in recent years, SAG has been operating in the red for most of the past 12 years. The proposal now before members would generate approximately $7.3 million in new revenues annually, placing the union squarely back on a strong financial footing."

The extra monies, according to the guild, would strengthen SAG in fall negotiations with producers on a three-year feature film and television contract, help "modernize neglected infrastructure," and aid in completing member-service efforts such as tracking residuals and providing online casting.

"With these resources, we can secure our fiscal health, significantly enhance member services and add exceptional leverage to our negotiations with the producers," Melissa Gilbert, SAG's national president, said in a joint statement with the guild's secretary-treasurer, James Cromwell. "We expect members to see an extra $15 each dues period as a worthwhile investment towards a strong union in a pivotal time."

"We've spent the past few years making the guild more efficient and focused," added SAG National Executive Director-CEO Robert Pisano. "Now it's time to take the next step not only to fiscal health, but to real strength—both in bargaining clout and in our ability to harness technology to better serve our members. This proposal will help ensure SAG advocates from a position of maximum strength for our members. Going to the negotiating table with a war chest is a powerful weapon that we want to have in our arsenal headed into the fall negotiations."

The SAG board at its Sunday meeting also voted in favor of financing a public awareness campaign, undertaken jointly with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), in advance of fall negotiations on the new three-year contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. The board also passed a unanimous resolution voicing strong support for the Writers Guild of America, which is currently engaged in contract negotiations with producers.

Loyal Opposition Agrees…And Not

The dues-hike proposal cleared two SAG committees early in April. At that time, Gilbert forces reportedly presented the proposal to opponents of the current leadership. The group, called Membership First, opposed Gilbert's re-election last year, led by Kent McCord, SAG's national treasurer at the time. Gilbert beat McCord in a hard-fought race, but Membership First carried 10 of the 12 Hollywood board seats that had been up for election.

Reached by phone on Monday, McCord—who has been a constant critic of SAG's spending of members' money on failed campaigns for a new talent-agents agreement and the proposed consolidation of SAG with AFTRA—said he didn't expect to oppose the dues hike.

"The assurances we received of the use of money have gone a long way to assuage fears of how it would be used," McCord told Back Stage. "It's pretty well on line with creating protections for our membership in the upcoming negotiations of the feature film and TV contract, and also the necessary things to improve services to members."

McCord said his major concern was that the money would be used "to sell consolidation and affiliation," meaning with AFTRA. He indicated that Gilbert forces assured him that wouldn't happen.

But Gordon Drake, who was the third presidential candidate in last fall's election, said he was "distressed" by the board's action.

"I understand the reasoning, from the financial aspect, for the base increase," Drake told Back Stage on Monday evening. "But I think they're fighting a real uphill battle there because of the community that's targeted with that increase—the background and/or struggling actor, somebody with a bad year or off year, a year when they're struggling."

The dues increase on earnings up to $200,000 appears reasonable, Drake said, because it mainly affects the middle-income actor.

But he added that the $500,000 cap on the high earner "distresses me further. They need to move the cap to $1 million, and I've preached that. Then they need to jump it to $5 million, and bring in another increase. They need to start some dues structure at that level. That forces people above $5 million to report their income, and lets them make a token contribution. That will allow the union to start tracking what's going on in the marketplace. It asks those high earners to share in the burden. They're reaping the greatest benefits from having started out in SAG. It's pretty much the only way they have gotten to that level."

Drake said the point would be not to penalize the big earners—who presently have to report only a small portion of their actual income on films—but to use their actual earnings to help the union better understand the market landscape. "Maybe levy 10 cents on each $1 million earned, so they can say, 'These are my actual earnings, and here's your hundred bucks.' Purely to track the demographics," Drake stressed.

He added he wasn't impressed with where the board said they would spend the increased income. "Those are areas they've tried to sell in past referendums," he said. He added that, instead of burdening the lower incomes of struggling actors, the board instead should be looking to grow the coffers by improved residuals on DVDs and other areas of the upcoming feature film and TV pact.

SAG's last dues increase came in 1999.

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