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SAG's Last Gathering? Guild's Jan. Annual Meetings Precede Historic Merger Vote Count

The Screen Actors Guild national board of directors meets in committees and plenary session Jan. 10-17 in Los Angeles. Depending on the results of a late January vote count, it could be the last gathering of SAG's leaders under their guild's 60-year-old banner.

Voting tabulations will begin Jan. 27 on SAG's proposed historic merger with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA). And while that melding into a union of 120,000 remains a big "if," a couple of SAG's board members feel the guild has to get on with the business of 1999, no matter how the voting may turn out.

"I think basically we'll try to lay out a program whether we merge or not," board member John Connolly told Back Stage. "And, if we do in fact merge, most likely there will be a joint meeting of the SAG and AFTRA boards sitting as a new national board pretty soon, probably in late February or early March. In the meantime, I think the guild has decided it needs a plan for work. There are contract enforcement questions, on-going litigation, and legislative things we need to look at."

Connolly is pro-merger. He said, "It seems to me there won't be much discussion about merger in the pro or con sense. Discussions have been had, positions have been taken, and campaigns conducted. Not much remains to be discussed. There's either going to be a merger or there's not."

Board member Chuck Sloan is anti-merger. He foresees board dialogue on the issue. "Merger is important," Sloan said. "We'll have questions with how the union dealt with the campaign," including what Sloan believes was exceeding the guild's pro-merger campaign budget of $100,000.

A Pre-emptive Meeting?

Both board members had differing views about whether the SAG plenary should have been held before the merger vote count.

"I think essentially we got jammed up by the calendar," Connolly opined. "Because we plan so far in advance to get hotel space, when the deposits were made on the hotel, we thought the actual merger vote would be taken and counted before the session."

Last year, the SAG board decided to delay sending the merger referendum on to the entire membership until SAG's finance committee had resolved concerns over a projected first year deficit of the merged union. Eventually, the finance committees of both SAG and AFTRA reported that the merged union's budget would move into the black by the second year. Both unions mailed out referendum packets, with ballots to be returned by Mon., Jan. 25.

"Organizations with a dues base are on a time curve," Connolly explained. "As the organizations grow, expenses go up. In my opinion, we're coming to the end of a dues cycle, because of the increased demand in the entertainment industry. This industry has more than doubled in size in five years in terms of number of programs, distribution, the players involved. Union expenses are going up to maintain a level of enforcement. Both organizations [SAG and AFTRA] are moving at the end of a dues cycle, and have to take a look at new dues structures. AFTRA had proposed a new dues structure two years ago, but decided to wait on implementing it because of the merger."

Leaders of both unions have also announced that members' dues would increase, whether a merger occurs or not.

"Anti-merger folks say we don't need a dues increase," Connolly added. "But SAG dues have not increased for 11 years. There have been huge increases in personnel and programs. You can argue if all the choices are the right choices, but all on the board had a say. In my opinion, SAG will need the dues increase even if it doesn't merge."

Sloan observed, "The major issue for this plenary is, does the board discuss how to run the union if there's no merger, or how to run it if there's a merger. Every issue will have to be considered "if' there's a merger. I heard one board member call it the "if' plenary."

Whence Residuals Study?

Sloan also believes the board needs to look at the proposed residuals study, the offspring of last year's film-TV contract between the two guilds and producers. The two sides signed a letter of agreement detailing a two-year study as a key component to the three-year pact. The study will examine economics of the television industry as a prelude to developing a new cable and foreign TV residuals formula. The letter notes that the two parties intend to complete the study on or before Jan. 1, 2000, "so meaningful discussions might conclude before June 30, 2000, regarding the appropriateness of changing the residual provisions in, or adding new residual provisions to, the collective bargaining agreements."

The NEC Investigation

On Nov. 16, the Hollywood SAG board held an election to choose nine of its members to the National Executive Committee, the powerful panel which governs the guild when the board isn't in session. Voting discrepancies led to arguments and accusations as serious as fraud. This, in turn, led to SAG retaining former California Supreme Court Judge Joseph Grodin to conduct an investigation.

Connolly said he didn't know if Grodin would issue any report to the national board, but added, "I would think the national board has a right to look at and discuss it, but I don't know if it will happen. I think the investigation should be concluded by the time the plenary takes place."

Sloan said he thought that Grodin would report to the Hollywood board at its regular meeting scheduled for Jan. 11.

Connolly summarized what he considers the role of union leaders for this plenary and any to follow, whether or not merger occurs: "We have to continually evaluate the evolution and change in growth and ownership patterns of the industry, and have a realistic appreciation of the power of our employers, and the potential power of our unions."

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