SAG, AFTRA to Divorce?

After coming within a whisker five years ago of merging, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and the Screen Actors Guild are all but severing their ties, a move that could escalate competition between the unions and possibly force some 44,000 dual cardholders to choose between the two.

It is a nasty separation seemingly headed for a divorce and comes at an already fractious and tumultuous time — in the midst of a three-month strike by the Writers Guild of America, which has put thousands of actors out of work, and on the cusp of negotiations on the unions' most lucrative contracts: those covering television, film, and commercials. SAG and AFTRA have traditionally negotiated most of those deals jointly, under an agreement known as Phase One, but they likely will bargain all of their deals with producers and advertisers separately for the first time in nearly three decades.

"I think it's unfortunate," Stephen Diamond, a labor attorney and associate professor of law at Santa Clara University in California, said of the potential split. "They have, obviously, common members in the industry and potentially significant leverage over the large conglomerates. This has to be a national battle, not a Hollywood battle." (Diamond was once a candidate to be SAG's national executive director.)

Each union has distanced itself from the other over the past seven months, but the steps have become more demonstrative recently. On Jan. 12, SAG's national board approved a measure to ask rank-and-file members to terminate Phase One and allow the guild to negotiate a new joint-bargaining agreement with AFTRA. The referendum, which will be voted on between Feb. 22 and March 14, is supported by a vast majority of the Hollywood board and opposed by the New York board, whose negotiating and organizing philosophy is in line with that of its sister union.

AFTRA's most recent actions, however, might render the measure moot. On Feb. 2, National President Roberta Reardon announced at AFTRA's national board meeting that the union had been granted a direct charter with the AFL-CIO. Previously, AFTRA had been affiliated with the national labor group through the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, a consortium of performers' unions that includes SAG and Actors' Equity Association, among others. That same day, AFTRA's national board passed a resolution that, in effect, gave the union the power to begin negotiating a new prime-time network television contract without SAG.

"AFTRA has a responsibility to move forward," Reardon said in a news release. "We cannot abdicate our fiduciary obligations to AFTRA members by allowing another institution to dictate the terms of our long-standing contracts or control our negotiating timeline."

Alan Rosenberg, national president of SAG, responded in a news release by saying, "If SAG members vote to end Phase I, we will, once again, attempt to engage AFTRA in substantive negotiations aimed at producing a fairer, stronger bargaining relationship. It is up to the leadership of AFTRA whether they choose to participate in that effort."

Consequences For Rank and File

The consequences for rank-and-file actors of a SAG-AFTRA split are difficult to discern, but if the two unions negotiate individually with their employers, it could decrease salaries and benefits across the board.

"It's going to put two organizations that represent the same people at odds with each other," said Sam Freed, president of SAG's New York board and a proponent of maintaining Phase One as it was originally written, with each union getting an equal number of votes. "Employers could play one off the other."

Freed also said that Rosenberg and National Executive Director Doug Allen warned board members at the January meeting that if the two unions go their own ways, SAG might be forced to enforce a regulation that could prohibit members from working AFTRA jobs. According to Rule 5 in SAG's constitution, the board can require a member to "divest himself or herself" of membership in another union that covers similar work. Rosenberg and Allen told Back Stage they would not speculate on a hypothetical situation but would not discount invoking Rule 5.

"If [AFTRA officials] refuse to negotiate with us on a fair deal, then we're in a position where we're in fierce competition with them," Rosenberg said. "And we'll use every weapon at our disposal."

Said Allen, "The union will not stand idly by and watch actors harmed by any part of this process.... As for disciplining members, that will be up to the board."

In an interview with Back Stage, AFTRA national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth questioned "whether SAG has the right to say to their members they cannot take part in employment."

Conflicted Relationship

Antipathy between the unions is not new. Before Phase One was created in 1981, leaders in each camp did not get along, according to an actor and longtime SAG insider who is intimately familiar with union politics. At the end of the television and film strike by actors in 1980, SAG overwhelmingly approved a contract from producers that AFTRA only narrowly passed. This created a fear that one group might one day cross the picket line of another, a situation that both wanted to avoid. According to the source, who requested anonymity, leaders of each union put aside their differences and created Phase One, which literally means the first phase of a merger.

However, attempts by the two unions to fully integrate have been defeated several times, most recently in 2003, when a merger fell about 1,200 votes short of passage. It was defeated largely through the efforts of a group of Los Angeles-based actors who would form the party known as Membership First, which now occupies almost all the seats on the Hollywood board, has a controlling majority on the national board, and twice endorsed Rosenberg's presidency.

Membership First has also served as the catalyst for policies that have distanced SAG from AFTRA. In July the Hollywood board pushed for and won bloc voting, which changed the essence of the Phase One agreement. Previously, AFTRA and SAG each received an equal number of votes during contract negotiations, even though SAG covers a much larger percentage of the scripted work on prime-time network television and all of the work in movies. With bloc voting, all SAG votes will now be cast for the majority SAG opinion. The change came despite strong objections from guild board members in New York and the regional branches.

Membership First partisans want bloc voting because they feel the interests of Los Angeles-based actors were sabotaged by AFTRA and the New York and regional boards of SAG during the last round of television and film negotiations, in 2005. According to Rosenberg and three anonymous sources, there was a vote on whether to push for a raise in DVD residuals. AFTRA voted 12-1 against, and SAG voted 8-5 in favor. All but one of the five dissenting votes came from the New York and regional branch contingent.

"I believe that if we had been able to push for an increase in DVD residuals, there might not be a writers strike right now," Rosenberg said. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the bargaining arm for the studios and networks, generally gives actors, writers, and directors residuals of comparable value. Also, producers have wanted to base residuals for new-media work on the DVD rate. If the rate had been higher by the time the writers and producers began negotiating last summer, Rosenberg's theory goes, the WGA might have been satisfied with the AMPTP's new-media offer.

A Basic Dispute

Other disputes between the unions include the fight over scripted programming on basic cable. SAG's Hollywood board contends that AFTRA contracts with some producers undercut SAG standards. AFTRA contends it needs to offer flexible contracts to establish union jurisdiction and to keep production from moving to Canada.

According to an actor and Membership First partisan, however, AFTRA's approach cheapens the price of labor and fails to recognize the unique talents of actors. "Does AFTRA really think scripted programming on basic cable is going to go nonunion unless they drop the bottom out of their contracts?" asked the actor, who requested anonymity. "I made more money from the two SAG shows I did last year than the five AFTRA shows I did combined."

Erik-Anders Nilsson is a New York-based actor and dual cardholder who ran against Freed for the New York presidency. He also belongs to Membership First and favors a stronger stand against AFTRA. "We don't want to be undercut by a sister union," he said. "I'm a very proud AFTRA member. I'm glad there's a strong AFTRA union. But producers are going to go with the union that is going to offer contracts at a lesser cost." Though people on both sides of the SAG-AFTRA divide have said a fracturing of the unions is a boon for management, a source familiar with the producers' thinking said the division is not necessarily a benefit. "Specifically, it makes bargaining more difficult" because there is another round of negotiations the AMPTP would have to go through, the source said. "In general, it makes for instability, which is never good."