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SAG Plays Politics with Pension, Health Cuts

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SAG Plays Politics with Pension, Health Cuts
The Screen Actors Guild's health and pension plans announced significant benefits cuts and premiums increases in its newsletter to members mailed Sept. 8—news that has become a political football in the race to lead the guild.

According to the newsletter, members will face higher health premiums beginning Jan. 1, and senior members who previously did not pay a premium will now have to do so. In addition, the pension accrual rate will be reduced on Jan. 1 from 3.5 percent of covered earnings to 2 percent. The plans said in the newsletter, "This action does not reduce or in any way affect the benefits currently being paid to pensioners and their beneficiaries, now does it in any way affect the amount of vested benefits accrued prior to January 1, 2010."

Unite for Strength and MembershipFirst partisans were quick to begin pointing fingers in the wake of the news. In an e-mail to supporters, Ned Vaughn, a Unite for Strength Hollywood board candidate, blamed MembershipFirst's resistance to cooperation with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists for the sorry state of the plans. MembershipFirst fired back Sept. 11 with a message accusing UFS presidential candidate Ken Howard of releasing confidential information about the plans' changes in a campaign e-mail the morning before the newsletter was sent to members. SAG 1st vice president Anne Marie Johnson, running for president on the Membership First slate, echoed her party's criticism of Howard.

"That was quite disturbing that he would use [the funds news] as political fodder to demonstrate his acumen in the pension and health area, which he has none of," Johnson said. The candidate went on to defend the pension fund for having performed relatively well in an economic downturn that has laid waste to other pensions, and blamed Howard and Unite for Strength for making the a political issue out of the plans. "We've never made the policies and procedures of the pension and health trustees an area which we politicize."

Howard stood by Vaughn's assessment, linking the plans' future health to an improved relationship with AFTRA.

"There's no way our pension and health plans can operate at their current levels if SAG and AFTRA continue dividing the television market," Howard said. "That's why an eventual merger makes so much sense. Not only will it increase our bargaining power, but it will strengthen the security of our pension and health benefits. The go-it-alone approach will produce the opposite result."

A closer relationship and eventual merger with AFTRA is the central plank in Unite for Strength's platform. It is passionately opposed by MembershipFirst, and also by Seymour Cassel, the independent candidate for president.

"I saw this coming," Cassel said of the changes to the pension and health plans. "It's ridiculous. You've got a full pension, you spend 30, maybe 40 years working in this business, maybe more, and you're guaranteed nothing."

SAG election results will be announced Sept. 24.

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