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AFTRA Delays Recommending SAG Merger Some Leaders Concerned Over Balking, Budget, and Health Plan

The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) hopes to decide in October whether to recommend that its 30,000 members merge with the 90,000-member Screen Actors Guild (SAG). AFTRA's national board met in plenary session last weekend, agreeing to a joint SAG-AFTRA national board meeting in the fall, which SAG's board recommended in mid-July.

After the AFTRA session, some members expressed concerns over several issues including: the decision to delay merger recommendation; a possible early budget deficit for the proposed new union; and the need for full health coverage.

Seeking a balance of opinions from both veteran AFTRA leaders and new board members, Back Stage called both coasts. Vet Paul Napier and newer board reps Crystal Carson, Virginia Watson and Betsy Salkind spoke about their concerns. AFTRA National President Shelby Scott, AFTRA/NY President J.R. Horne, and vet board member Maureen Donnelly had not returned several calls by press time.

Napier, who has been involved in the merger process for nearly two decades, expressed strong frustration that leaders of both unions--including himself--have yet to reach a decision on uniting. Carson emphasized great concern over the proposed union's projected $5 million, first-year budget deficit. She also sees the merger as a possible foil to both unions undercutting one another when dealing with producers in the growing new media, such as cable and the Internet. Watson and Salkind both voiced the need for full health care coverage, including stating a forceful case for payment of birth control pills.

Discouraged Over Delays

"I've always been concerned about what each of the unions would bring to the merger," said Napier, who is a member of both SAG and AFTRA's boards. "I'm a strong supporter of merger, going back to 1980 and the pay-TV strike, where we, in effect, jointly negotiated a contract, and have continued to do so in three areas. That gave us the incentive for merger talk.

"There must be some logical reason in overview why it has taken 19 years," Napier continued, clearly sounding frustrated by both SAG and AFTRA's recent board meetings and decisions to delay recommending merger. "Despite my longstanding support of merger, 18 years and not being able to come to a decision is telling us something. Apparently it isn't supposed to be."

At its meeting in mid-July, the SAG national board received the report of the projected $5 million first-year deficit. "The deficit was a surprise," Napier said. "I don't think anybody was trying to withhold anything. It just hadn't been made clear. But in overview, I still don't see why we can't come to a decision. It's mindboggling."

Salkind, a two-year member of the AFTRA board, also serves as a SAG director. She seems less concerned about the joint boards taking time to make a decision on the merger than about making sure they make the correct decision. She also thinks it's too early to be concerned about the projected budget deficit. "The deficit is based on a plan; basically we'll go back and look at expenses, and the information [provided by finance committee studies from both unions] will be ready by the October meeting," Salkind, who has also served as chair of AFTRA's comedians caucus, said. "Both organizations have made major changes, aggressively organizing. Basically the finances need to be worked out, not just because of costs and a possible dues increase, but to find out what the true operating cost will be, and how to finance it. So there won't necessarily be a dues increase; it may or may not happen."

In response to the projected budget deficit, John Sucke, SAG/New York's executive director, had said dues would possibly be increased for members with higher incomes.

Watson said of the budget, "The paperwork I saw was pretty normal. That didn't bother me. That's not a cause of concern. However, I am concerned about where those [increased] funds are going to actually come from. Your top 1%? The little guy who has no money? We don't know yet."

Carson said she was "very concerned about the budget deficit. It seems we're not getting all the facts; and the figures are based on no one dropping out of either union. If you raise dues, people are going to drop out."

Struggling With Health Plans

Carson said she knew many members who presently receive health benefits from both unions are asking, " 'I'm 100% covered now; will I be under the merger?' But we didn't hear about that at the recent plenary session."

Watson noted, "I'm a member of AFTRA, SAG and Equity. There are some times I have 150% coverage, and I don't want that touched. I don't want my pension disturbed either. This is where SAG and AFTRA are saying, 'We have to figure this out.' I don't know if they can figure it out. I don't want my insurance taken away from AFTRA; I don't want it combined with AFTRA and SAG. I want what I've always had, with a 100% deductible. With the merger, they say they're going to try and find two plans. They better."

"They" are the trustees of the SAG and AFTRA health and pension plans. Through intense study, meetings and negotiations, the two trusts have attempted to find a way to combine plans, but have been unable to.

"AFTRA has a fully funded health and retirement plan, and SAG's is not," explained Napier. "Because of the complexity, we're pretty much agreed that the pension funds are not logical sources of merger.

"As for the health plan, there is hope we could have something similar to coordination of benefits" so that, for example, if your income under one plan allowed 80% health coverage, the other would cover the other 20%."

In fact, Napier hopes that current efforts in merging the health plan could lead to coverage for even more members who couldn't find coverage through either union.

As for health benefits in specific areas, both Salkind and Watson are concerned about insurance companies that have approved paying for Viagra, the male-sex-stimulant medication, but won't cover birth control pills.

"When I first knew insurance companies weren't covering birth control pills, I drafted a letter, and the AFTRA board voted to recommend coverage to the trustees of the health plan, who have already said they're covering Viagra," Salkind said. "I would take the position that, even if you don't cover Viagra, you should cover birth control. The federal government has changed its policy to cover birth control. Insurance companies who elect not to cover it are facing possible lawsuits by women in the plan; and our plan is no different."

Watson added that she would support a class-action suit if the unions' health plans didn't fund birth control pills. "You'll give a man Viagra who'll go and have intercourse with a female member who can't get pills and have to pay $30,000 for prenatal care and adding a baby to the insurance plan?" emphasized Watson. "I can't believe we're into the new Millennium and not dealing with this."

What's In a Name?

And then there's the issue of a name for the proposed new union. In mid-July, the SAG board voted to call it SAG/AFTRA. AFTRA's board last week didn't find the matter so simple.

"We took an hour and a half to vote on whether or not to vote on the name," said a frustrated Carson, who's in her first year as a board member. "We took an hour and a half to decide not to discuss it. Why take time for that instead of concentrating on the things that will bring the merger about?"

Said Salkind: "In my opinion, you can call the union 'Bob' and I wouldn't care. The important thing is to have a strong union."

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