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Union Merger Clears Hurdle SAG, AFTRA Boards Approve Year-End Member Referendum

(BPI) LOS ANGELES‹In an historic vote that's been 50 years in the making, the national boards of directors of SAG and AFTRA have approved the final plans for a merger of the two unions. The proposed merger, however, must still be approved by the members, and opponents and proponents are already gearing up for the final battle.

For the merger to be finalized, it must be approved by 60% of the voting members of each union. Ballots‹accompanied by pro and con statements‹will go out to the unions' 120,000 members in late November, to be counted 60 days later.

On Fri., Oct. 2, the unions' boards approved final changes in the way the new union would be financed, and the following day they voted to recommend the merger to their respective members.

AFTRA's board voted 75 to 13, while SAG's board voted 60 to 37 to recommend approval.

According to merger documents, key features of the new union include:

€A strong national board of directors that will be "responsible for the general management, direction and control of the affairs, funds and properties" of the new union;

€Six national officers, including a president, a secretary-treasurer,

and four vice presidents;

€A national administrative staff headed by an executive director who will have overall administrative and negotiating authority;

€Thirty semi-autonomous locals, each of which will have its own local board, officers and executive director, and each of which "shall have the authority to manage and govern its own affairs as they relate to local issues within the territory of its jurisdiction";

€A biennial convention that will nominate national officers and, upon motion of two-thirds of its delegates, "order the reconsideration of any resolution which had been adopted by the national board";

€A new dues structure that will tie future dues increases to the cost of living index;

€An "interim period" that will follow final membership approval of the merger, during which time the national board members from each union will make up the new union's interim national board. Among the interim board's first duties will be the election of national officers.

SAG and AFTRA‹which share jurisdiction over performers who work on primetime TV shows, commercials, and non-broadcast productions‹have been talking about merging since 1948, but didn't get serious until about eight years ago.

In 1960, the unions hired a consultant to make recommendations, but it wasn't until the mid-1970s that the unions created committees to actually study the issue and to make recommendations to the unions' boards.

In 1981, the unions agreed to enter "Phase One"‹a step that allowed them to jointly negotiate and ratify all major contracts they shared in film and television. The two unions began talking seriously again in the mid-1980s, but those talks fizzled in 1988 when the unions could not agree on what type of government would rule the new union.

In 1991, however, the modern era of merger talks began when SAG president Barry Gordon and AFTRA president Reid Farrell agreed to form a small committee to look at what had been done to date and to see if the process couldn't be moved forward. Those talks led to the formation of a larger committee, which after many years came to a consensus on proposals for a merger.

In December 1996, the boards of both unions approved a dues and governmental structure and since then work has continued to resolve the last few troublesome issues. A merger of the unions' pension and health plans, however, has been ruled out, and those benefit plans will continue to operate separately.

The final pieces of the puzzle fell into place over the weekend when the unions' joint boards approved a revised financial plan that will increase initiation fees and tie future dues increases to the cost of living index‹changes designed to erase a projected deficit during the new union's first years of existence (HR 10/1).

One of the final pieces of business was naming the new union. After much debate, it was decided to call it the Screen Actors Guild/American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, or SAG/AFTRA for short.

The unions' presidents and executive directors all expressed their support for the merger.

"It's a very important day," said SAG president Richard Masur, "one that we've been working 50 years to get to, where we have agreed to once and for all put this choice ... before our respective memberships."

"I believe this is absolutely the right thing for SAG, for the membership of SAG and for the future of performers in this industry," Masur said.

"This is a very important day," said AFTRA national president Shelby Scott. "The industry that both unions have been working under has changed so rapidly that a merged union will be so much better equipped to handle that change and to represent the members. That's why I'm a strong proponent of this merger."

"I've always been a very strong proponent for merger," said SAG national executive director Ken Orsatti, "so this has been a very important weekend for the memberships of both unions. If the referendum is approved by the memberships, I believe it will give the new union the strength and the ability to not only protect the hard-earned rights that we have already achieved, but to position the new union in the next century to make additional advances on behalf of the membership."

AFTRA national executive director Bruce York said: "I certainly support the work that the members have done to construct a workable plan that will benefit both unions. I think it is a good plan."

Not everyone agrees, however, and opponents of the merger are planning to launch a campaign to persuade members to reject it. Former SAG third vp Ron Soble is one of the leading SAG voices against the merger. Soble said that he favors a merger of the unions‹but not this merger.

"This merger is not a merger," Soble said. "It's really the absorption of SAG by AFTRA. The AFTRA governmental system will prevail, wherein the convention is the supreme authority."

Soble also believes that this merger is wrong-headed because "the low-earning members in SAG are getting a tremendous dues increase," and because SAG's highest earning members will have their dues reduced, while the highest-earning AFTRA newscasters will have 10 years to see their dues catch up with the dues of the highest-earning SAG actors.

Soble is also against the merger because it allows the board to increase dues based on the cost of living index. "Under this merger plan," he said, "the board can raise the dues without getting the permission of the membership. Not going to a referendum to raise the dues is a mortal sin, as far as I'm concerned."

He also said that "this proposed merger will make over 20,000 previously ineligible AFTRA members‹members of AFTRA who are not presently SAG members‹eligible to compete for SAG jobs."

Orsatti, however, said that these and other "legitimate questions" will be answered in the pro and con statements and the rebuttals that will accompany the ballots being sent to the members.

Masur, meanwhile, noted that "there are many of us, myself included, who value tremendously the legacy and history of SAG, and I know that there are many who feel the same way about AFTRA. What we have endeavored to do through this process is to put aside those parochial interests for the long range benefit of the members and what we feel will be a new, even stronger organization."

"The complaints of detractors that this (merged union) looks too much like AFTRA are misplaced," said AFTRA's York. "AFTRA has changed radically over the last five years, and it has, in a large sense, moved closer to what SAG looks like by retaining local service, but by combining it with national strength. In my view, this is truly a new organization that tries to take the best of both organizations' strengths as its structure."

Almost everyone agrees that if the members reject this merger plan, there won't be another coming down the road anytime soon.

"I would think that if the membership turns this down," Scott said, "there's not going to be any more talk of a merger. Maybe they may want to try it again in 50 years, but not right away. This is it."

David Robb writes for

The Hollywood Reporter.

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