By DAVID GROVES
Members of the two biggest entertainment and media unions in the country, the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), are voting this month on a proposal to merge their unions, both of which were founded in the 1930s. National and local leaders of both unions are urging members, including about 1,400 here in Washington state, to vote to approve the merger.
SAG represents nearly 120,000 actors who work in motion pictures, television, commercials, industrial films, video games, Internet and all new media formats. AFTRA represents more than 70,000 performers, journalists and other artists working in the entertainment and news media. Both unions are affiliates of the AFL-CIO.
“In this day and age when unions are under attack, the possibility of having two significant unions come together to help balance out workers’ bargaining power against the huge conglomerates that employ our members would be very helpful,” said Brad Anderson, Regional Director of AFTRA Northwest, which represents about 600 members in Washington state. “I think it will be a very hopeful sign if our unions can come together and try to correct that balance.”
The merger could also have wider implications for organized labor.
“If this is approved, it’s going to be a huge shot in the arm for the labor movement,” AFTRA president Roberta Reardon told Variety. “Labor unions have been under attack, particularly with the growing power of corporate employers and their ability to get around unions in new areas of work.”
Leaders say the merger also would resolve some long-standing jurisdictional issues between SAG and AFTRA. For example, both unions have members who do work in television, industrial films and interactive games.
“From time to time, producers have been able to pit one union against the other to try to get a better deal,” said John Lowrie, President of the Seattle SAG Council, which represents about 800 members in Washington.
The merger would also be a first step toward combining the health and retirement benefit plans for the unions, which proponents say will make medical and pension benefits more accessible for members, while reducing duplicative administrative costs for those plans.
“I personally belong to three unions — Actors Equity, AFTRA and SAG,” Lowrie said. “So it’s possible to earn money in all three, but not get vested in any one of them. That’s something that’s been a bane for actors for decades. Unity would rationalize the structure so that when actors get a job, they know it’s a union job and that work will go toward their health and pension plans.”
There are some members who oppose a merger. A group of some high-profile actors led by Ed Asner and Valerie Harper have filed a lawsuit to try to block the merger, ostensibly over concerns that the proposed combination could weaken health and pension benefits.
But Lowrie says the reaction he’s gotten from SAG members in Washington state has been “overwhelmingly positive.” He believes those who oppose it are uncomfortable with the change for emotional reasons rather than objectively considering the merger’s benefits.
“The vast majority of members are dual card-holders and paying dues into both unions and not always getting the benefit of both unions because income is split between them,” he said.
Ballots were mailed Feb. 27 to all eligible voters of SAG and AFTRA. They must be returned via mail and must be received at the assigned post office box — in Everett, Washington! — no later than 10 a.m. Friday, March 30. Approval will require 60% majorities in both unions. The merger would take effect immediately. For more information about the merger, visit www.sagaftra.org.