Actors, broadcasters and recording artists rejected plans to form a 150,000-member super union that would have united under one umbrella members as diverse as Julia Roberts, Dan Rather and Bonnie Raitt.
The vote announced late Tuesday night ends one of the most contentious campaigns in Hollywood labor relations as performers spurned arguments that a single large union was crucial to counter the growing power of such media conglomerates as Viacom Inc., AOL Time Warner Inc., News Corp. and Walt Disney Co.
SAG members narrowly defeated the combination even as approximately 58% endorsed it, falling just short of the required 60%. AFTRA members overwhelmingly voted for the combination with 76% in favor. Members of both unions would have had to approve the merger.
Despite spending about $2 million to solicit approval, union leaders couldn't overcome the 60% requirement. The measure would have authorized the folding of the venerable Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists into the new Alliance of International Media Artists. That union would have been subdivided into three autonomous units representing actors, broadcasters and recording artists.
"There is a 60% threshold to give away a union for a reason: so it can't be easily achieved," said actor and SAG Treasurer Kent McCord, a leading opponent of the consolidation.
SAG President Melissa Gilbert said that despite the close vote, SAG will "continue operating alone."
The announcement came after a daylong ballot count in meeting rooms on the second floor of the Radisson Wilshire Plaza Hotel in Koreatown. Trying to head off any accusations of ballot tampering, SAG set up a series of security posts leading up to the rooms.
Combining the two groups has been discussed as far back as the 1930s, when actors and radio performers first considered joint representation. In recent years, AFTRA has represented actors in programs shot on tape, such as news broadcasters, game show hosts and soap opera actors as well as radio performers. SAG has represented performers on film, such as prime-time TV and feature film actors.
Over the years SAG members have preferred autonomy, torpedoing efforts to merge as recently as 1999.
Even though directors of both unions overwhelmingly approved the plan, a feisty group of dissidents that included such actors as McCord, Valerie Harper, Frances Fisher and Elliott Gould launched a "Save SAG" campaign.
They argued that the plan contained too many unanswered questions, including how it will affect pension and health plans.
The full-fledged merger proposals of the past were shelved for a plan that formed the umbrella group and which would preserve SAG's name and its stature as the bargaining group for actors. The two unions avoided the word "merger" in favor of "consolidation."
Such well-known stars as Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, the late Gregory Peck, Will Smith, Kevin Spacey, Tom Hanks, Helen Hunt, Martin Sheen, Angela Lansbury and George Clooney endorsed it.
Calling their campaign "Partnership for Power," proponents bet unsuccessfully that their argument that a bulked-up union was needed to counter the increased concentration of media power would resonate with members.
Hollywood studios carefully avoided statements about the election, saying they were neutral in the debate.
The fight was set against the backdrop of a contentious election last year that saw Gilbert and a moderate faction of the union defeat a more strident group led by Harper. Gilbert supporters argued that the campaign against consolidation was a thinly disguised power play to gain control of the union.
Labor lawyer Alan M. Brunswick of Manatt, Phelps & Phillips said a "no" vote sends a message to companies that the fractious SAG remains in disarray as actors are nearing negotiations with ad agencies on a new commercials contract, and a new round of bargaining next year with studios.
"It shows they are very divided," Brunswick said.