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SAG, AFTRA May Act Again to Consolidate

Actors, broadcasters and recording artists would retain autonomy, share administration.

February 05, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Back in 1937, the entertainment industry's two major performers unions first kicked around the idea of joining together to take on Hollywood studios and end their own overlap.

They're still at it.

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in recent weeks have inched yet again toward a potential alliance. But the outcome probably will fall short of the controversial full-scale mergers proposed in the past.

More probable, union sources said, is a proposal to combine SAG's and AFTRA's nearly 150,000 members under one umbrella organization. They would then be represented by three highly autonomous divisions -- one each for actors, broadcasters and recording artists.

Sources familiar with the plan said each group would be self-governing with its own 25-member board and a separate contract negotiating committee. To save money, administrative functions such as dues collections and residual payments would be consolidated.

Union officials declined to comment.

The boards of both unions are expected to discuss scenarios Saturday. Any consolidation plan would have to be submitted for a vote by members, and approval is far from certain. Ratification would require at least 60% of the vote from each union. Four years ago, directors of both unions pushed hard for a merger that SAG members shot down.

Historically, AFTRA has represented performers on videotape, including those in soap operas, game shows, unscripted programs and variety shows; it also represents TV and radio broadcasters. SAG represents actors in films, commercials and prime-time TV shows.

About 45,000 of AFTRA's 70,000 members also belong to SAG, whose 100,000 members constitute Hollywood's largest performers union. The unions already jointly negotiate acting contracts in which they overlap. Actors would join 12,000 broadcasters and 8,000 recording artists in a new union if the consolidation is approved.

Entertainment labor lawyer Alan M. Brunswick of Manatt Phelps & Phillips gives consolidation of some sort a better-than-even chance.

"There's a lot of complicated legal issues there," he said, citing the merging of pension and health plans, for one.

University of Texas professor David F. Prindle, author of a SAG history, "The Politics of Glamour," adds that yet another major hurdle historically has been meshing two vastly different structures.

"SAG is like a centralized corporation," Prindle said, "while AFTRA is more like a true union with a lot of locals."

Still, supporters have argued that it's more crucial than ever for the unions to find a way to consolidate to better battle the huge media giants they face at the bargaining table.

In addition, backers want to end jurisdictional squabbles, such as who will represent actors in the growing area of digital productions, where AFTRA has been more aggressive. Supporters also hope that consolidation would encourage unions such as Actors Equity, which represents stage performers, to join as well.

When the last SAG-AFTRA merger was rejected in 1999, opponents were concerned that SAG members, especially in Los Angeles, were on the short end of the deal when it came to board seats and dues. Members also expressed concerns about meshing the pension and health plans.

Union officials hope to avoid such pitfalls this time, partly through the more autonomous structure.

Actor David Joliffe, a former SAG vice president who was one of the chief opponents of the 1999 merger proposal, said any plan separating actors from broadcasters while preserving the SAG "brand" would be welcomed because the two professions have different needs.

"Fritz Coleman and I have nothing in common. I don't want to impose my will on Fritz Coleman, and I'm sure Fritz Coleman doesn't want to impose his will on me," Joliffe said, referring to the KNBC-TV Channel 4 weatherman.

But Joliffe cautioned that SAG leaders should consult those opposed to the 1999 proposal before putting any plan to a member vote.

"My fear is that they will come in with a deal that is three-quarters right," he said. "I want to wait and see exactly what they come up with."

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