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SAG Responds To Anti-Mergerites And WIPO

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Actors signing a petition opposed to the SAG-AFTRA merger "are misinformed," according to John Sucke, executive director of the Screen Actors Guild's New York office. Sucke rebutted the document's major implications in a Back Stage interview on Mon., Feb. 10.

Also, in another issue involving the merger, leaders of SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are at odds over Senate ratification of the World Intellectual Property Organization Treaty (WIPO). AFTRA supports the draft document, which includes protection of audio recordings in cyberspace. SAG is calling for a deferral of ratification because the treaty doesn't protect audio-visual performers.

Making Points About Petition

"I don't want to mount a debate, but I think the people who subscribe to the petition are misinformed; and certainly it's possible to fan the fires of fear," Sucke said. "It's hard to get hard facts for people, and I understand the great fear about not enough work to go around."

The petition, which has been circulating on New York production sets since November, opposes an "open door policy" at AFTRA, and purports that the merger will increase competition for acting jobs and make benefits more difficult to attain. Sucke's comments addressed those three main issues.

"There's a mistaken assumption out there that, in AFTRA membership, a huge number of non-SAG members are hungry for SAG extra work," Sucke commented. But, he said, SAG figures indicate that the combined membership for New York after the merger will be approximately 32,000. He added that current SAG/NY membership is already around 27,000, and most of the 5,000 added with the merger wouldn't be actors competing for extra work.

"In reality, AFTRA members not in SAG haven't joined because they don't seek SAG work," Sucke observed. "They're radio announcers, phonograph recording artists, news commentators. There's a considerable portion of the AFTRA membership that doesn't cross over because it's not their area. I can't deny there would be additional people seeking extra work; but to say there's going to be a 'flood' is hardly accurate."

The petition's cover sheet state's that the merger "will almost certainly flood the market on the 'extra,' 'dayplayer,' and 'general audition' level."

A Matter of Health

The petition also pointed out that the merger would make obtaining benefits more difficult. But as far as health benefits are concerned, Sucke said: "That's not been announced to be true, and I don't expect it to be true."

Rather than increasing competition, the merger will increase avenues for performance, and improve health benefits status, Sucke indicated. "SAG members who aren't in AFTRA would love to work on 'The Cosby Show' or 'Letterman', and soap operas," which are shows open only to AFTRA members, he said. "That's a chance, too, for more earnings toward the health plan. It's just as much one way as the other," meaning that both SAG and AFTRA members can gain from the merger.

Closing Open Membership

As to the anti-merger contingent's concern about open policy, Sucke said, "If you're against open membership, the merger is the way to stop it. The merged union won't have open membership.

"Since the new union will not be open, and you'll have to qualify with jobs under the merged union to join it, the same argument could be made about SAG members who haven't worked in AFTRA jurisdiction," Sucke continued. "Why should SAG members who haven't done AFTRA work be able to be members of the merged union? You can't create different levels of membership."

The petition had proposed a separate "eligible" status for AFTRA members who joined before the merger "but who would not have qualified to be eligible for SAG." Sucke further responded, "This also carries the assumption that we'll be able to separate SAG and AFTRA work after the merger. But we won't. It will be a new union."

Whacking at WIPO

SAG and AFTRA leaders are also attempting to mend a crack in the merger's progress caused by disagreement over WIPO. The international organization's treaty--called the Treaty for the Protection of the Rights of Performers and Producers of Phonograms--must be approved by the U.S. Senate, as well as other countries. Proponents, including the Recording Industry Association of America, have hoped for swift Senate approval to encourage other countries to follow suit. Of some 160 countries involved in the WIPO pact, 30 must approve the treaty to assure worldwide acceptance.

The SAG-AFTRA struggle came to light last week when The Hollywood Reporter revealed a letter from AFTRA national president Shelby Scott responding to SAG's announcing vigorous opposition to the treaty. Scott told SAG national president Richard Masur that she was "terribly dismayed" at SAG's position. She also questioned "whether the new union is capable of understanding and addressing the needs of its diverse but complementary constituencies."

SAG's national executive committee reacted by meeting on Tues., Feb. 4, to re-examine the treaty issue. The committee unanimously approved a motion stating that SAG "will continue to call for the deferral of ratification of the WIPO treaty until audio-visual performers are appropriately covered, or until the United States officially changes its position as to the treatment of audio-visual performers."

WIPO's first meeting on the subject of audiovisual performers is scheduled for the first quarter of 1997. SAG's motion said the union's committee would review its position on the treaty after that

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