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SAG Pushes For Merger

This summer, when Melissa Gilbert ran for a second term as the Screen Actors Guild national president, she vowed to continue working for a SAG consolidation with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA).

Having been re-elected, she and SAG began following through on that commitment last week, commencing "a systematic process to solicit feedback from its members across the nation regarding their opinions and ideas on future efforts to unite SAG and AFTRA," according to a guild press release.

The effort opened last Fri., Oct. 31, with the start of a telephone poll consisting of "random calls made by a professional polling company. Telephone numbers are dialed by a computer system, not by the pollsters, in keeping with SAG's long-standing confidentiality policies. The phone polling will be followed by broader outreach within the next few months."

By press time, SAG had not responded to queries about the name of the polling firm and the poll's cost, or what the "broader outreach" would involve.

Sweeney Shows Strong Support

The AFL-CIO reportedly is paying for SAG's phone poll, thereby upping the 13-million-member union's ante in support of a SAG-AFTRA merger. The nation's performer unions—including SAG, AFTRA, and Actors' Equity Association—are affiliated with the AFL-CIO through their parent union, the Associated Actors and Artistes of America.

Ever since John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, appeared with SAG and AFTRA leaders during their bitter 2000 commercial-contract strike, he apparently has seen how actors—and particularly celebrities—can increase visibility for the labor movement. Too, he has proved particularly visible in supporting the performer unions' efforts at solidarity over the past year.

As early as March, Sweeney was attending the SAG Awards in Los Angeles, and then sat in on consolidation meetings there. He also provided a profile Q&A interview with The Hollywood Reporter in which he touted the virtues of a SAG-AFTRA marriage. Sweeney and the AFL-CIO hierarchy also heard both SAG's Gilbert and AFTRA National President John Connolly's support of merger at the AFL-CIO's executive committee meetings last spring. The huge union's execs followed that by endorsing the merger.

At the end of June, AFTRA members voted overwhelmingly to support consolidation—officially called consolidation and affiliation (C&A)—with 75% of cast ballots in favor. But a 60% majority of each union was required for passage, and only 58% of SAG voters said "aye," falling 2% short.

That led SAG's Gilbert to say last week, "When 58% of our members voted for C&A they charged us, their elected leaders, with finding a way to get this accomplished. With cooperation and collaboration I am confident that we can meet that challenge in the best interests of actors across the country."

Meanwhile, Sweeney also appeared last week in New York City at Equity's kickoff rally prepping for the legit actors' 2004 negotiations for a new Production Contract. The rally emphasized the stage union's ongoing efforts to battle nonunion tours. Leaders from AFTRA and SAG also attended, a continuing sign that the performer unions are looking at a possible combining of all clans.

Not only have SAG and AFTRA worked at melding, but the framers of their failed merger's proposed constitution had made room for including other unions, obviously meaning at least Equity. Meanwhile, Equity and AFTRA have agreed to find more ways to cooperate. And Equity and the American Guild of Musical Artists have begun to study a possible merger, which might even include the American Guild of Variety Artists.

AFTRA's Dues Dilemma

A sign of the unions' continuing struggles with finances recently appeared when AFTRA communicated to members the rationale for a dues increase that became effective Nov. 1. The four-page document, "Your Union's Financial Future—Decisive Action to Strengthen AFTRA" appeared on the union's website.

AFTRA has hit members with a 5% dues increase and a $50 assessment, effective this month, with another 5% rise and $50 assessment to occur Nov. 1, 2004. Also beginning this month, initiation fees for new members increased from $1,200 to $1,300.

The hikes have come "to eliminate the current financial crisis," AFTRA said. For the past seven years, the union "has operated with a significant deficit, spending more than it collects each year in dues and initiation fees." For the fiscal year ending April 2003, AFTRA showed an actual deficit of $1.2 million, "which is consistent with previous years," the report said.

While AFTRA's operations are efficient, the union continues to run annual deficits because its members pay lower dues than other unions, the report noted. A chart within the document showed rates AFTRA members pay compared to SAG and Equity, with SAG and Equity members paying higher dues at every level of a graduated income scale. For example, while an AFTRA member earning $25,000 paid $238 in semiannual dues, an Equity member paid $299 and a SAG member $281. An AFTRA member earning $100,000 would pay $769, while an Equity member paid $1,049 and a SAG actor $975.

AFTRA's increased member charges are designed to accomplish two specific goals, according to the document: (1) to stabilize finances and provide insurance against unforeseen events, and (2) assure that AFTRA can continue to serve its members. Those efforts will allow AFTRA's leaders to design a long-term plan for growth.

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