This election boils down to a fundamental decision: Should the Screen Actors Guild escalate its battle with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists into all-out war, or should it reach out in partnership to create a single union to represent all film, television, and new-media actors? Unite for Strength believes partnership is the smart choice. Our reasoning is simple: The more united performers are, the stronger our position at the bargaining table.
Membership First thinks differently. They are proud to have thwarted the last consolidation attempt, despite the fact that over 58 percent of voters wanted it to happen (just under the 60 percent required). Instead of taking that majority as a mandate to find a way to make merger happen, they've done everything they can to alienate AFTRA.
That hasn't worked out too well.
They claim they want all actors in one union but without merger. When asked how, they can't really say. Membership First leaders like Justine Bateman have called for SAG members to simply turn down any AFTRA work offered them, no matter how good the contract, until the producers come crawling back to SAG. Perhaps Ms. Bateman is in a position to do that, but most actors aren't. What would be Membership First's final recourse? Aside from merger, the only way to bring all actors under one roof would be to persuade the casts of AFTRA shows to decertify their union, go at least one year without any union representation, and then petition SAG to represent them. If that sounds complicated and unlikely to work, it is.
So why not take the approach already proven by countless other merged unions? Membership First is opposed to merger because they say actors must not be subjugated to the will of "weathermen in Peoria," to borrow a phrase from SAG national president Alan Rosenberg, a Membership First partisan. They also warn repeatedly about dangerous "AFTRA leaders" who will bring down union standards.
Reality and simple math, however, dismiss these as empty concerns. There are about 120,000 SAG members and roughly 70,000 AFTRA members. About 44,000 belong to both unions. In a merged union, the 120,000 SAG actors would make up 82 percent of the new union's total membership of about 146,000. And there would be no "AFTRA leaders"—the leadership of a merged union would be newly elected by the membership. Certainly, an 82 percent supermajority of SAG actors can choose a leadership that reflects its needs.
But for some reason, Membership First would rather keep fighting with AFTRA—and what has happened with the TV/Theatrical Contract negotiation is a perfect example of where that approach leads. Not only have SAG members lost jobs from a production slowdown, but those with jobs have lost, collectively, millions of dollars by working for two months under the expired contract. It's Teddy Roosevelt's famous adage stood on its head: Rather than "speak softly but carry a big stick," Membership First talks tough but with a stick that's broken in two.
Actors deserve better. The way to get it is by uniting every face and every voice that fills our employers' screens and airwaves. That will give us the leverage we need to get the contracts we deserve. That's what Unite for Strength is all about.
Ned Vaughn is a candidate for SAG's national board in the Hollywood division and a spokesman for Unite for Strength. A full list of candidates can be found at www.uniteforstrength.com.