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SAG Infighting Gets Louder Ahead of Vote on Merger Plan

Backers say the union with AFTRA would cut costs and boost clout. Foes say pension and health-care issues remain unresolved.

June 12, 2003|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

The latest political drama at the Screen Actors Guild is beginning to look like a rerun of "Family Feud."

This time around, the fractious actors union is caught up in a star-studded brawl over merger prospects. The issue: whether SAG and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists should be folded into a new super-union that could flex more bargaining muscle with big media conglomerates.

Directors of the two unions overwhelmingly approved the plan in April, sending it to members for a mail-in vote taking place this month. To help sell the plan, which requires 60% of the vote to pass, SAG and AFTRA secured endorsements from such respected actors as Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Vanessa Redgrave and Gregory Peck and union leaders such as John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, and Thomas Short, president of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees.

Then trouble started.

The proposal -- to consolidate autonomous actor, broadcaster and recording artist unions under a new, 150,000-member umbrella called the Alliance of International Media Artists -- came under an aggressive counterattack by dissidents in a group called Save SAG. They argue that merging the two unions is unnecessary and would diminish SAG's independence, and that the consolidation plan fails to adequately address health-care, pension and other issues.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 13, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Acting debate -- A chart accompanying an article in Thursday's Business section on the proposed merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists gave the incorrect Internet address of a group against the idea. The correct address is www.savesag.com.

"I'm not interested in promises," says veteran actor and SAG officer Elliott Gould. "There are too many gray areas and too many unanswered questions."

Supporters counter that the campaign to scuttle the plan is nothing more than a thinly disguised power play by a militant union faction that lost much of its clout in a bitterly fought election last year, when a moderate slate led by Melissa Gilbert of "Little House on the Prairie" fame largely swept former "Rhoda" star Valerie Harper's group.

Infighting between the two blocs has consumed SAG for nearly four years, exacerbated by a controversial six-month strike against advertisers in 2000 under a more strident administration led by actor William Daniels.

Actors backing consolidation allege that union militants want members to vote down the plan so they can leverage its defeat into a renewed push for control of SAG.

"This is sour grapes," says actor James Cromwell, who backs the plan. "It's people who resent that Valerie didn't win the election who are using this as a springboard to try to retake the board and impose the same sort of dysfunction that we had before."

The arguments have been picking up volume, with most of the opposition noise coming from the SAG camp rather than the quieter AFTRA, where there is no organized opposition.

Opponents have been picketing SAG's Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. Oscar-winning actress Helen Hunt and veteran actress Shirley Knight, both of whom support consolidation, lashed out at opponents after they erroneously included the women's names in literature as being against the deal.

The fight even made it to Howard Stern's radio show this week, with a debate between Gilbert and "Titanic" actress Frances Fisher that was punctuated by raunchy questions from Stern.

Top stars have been lining up on both sides. Among those in the pro-merger camp are Richard Dreyfuss, Nicolas Cage, George Clooney, Danny Glover, Bonnie Raitt, Randy Newman, James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon, Cromwell and Gilbert.

Merger opponents include Rob Schneider, Holly Hunter, Martin Landau, Charlton Heston, Ed Harris, Marg Helgenberger, Fisher, Gould and SAG Treasurer Kent McCord, one of the main leaders of the fight.

Actor Mike Farrell, a SAG vice president, accuses consolidation opponents of recklessly trying to scare members into believing they will lose their pensions and power.

"It's a guerrilla war," Farrell says. "It's childish and disheartening."

Fisher disputes that: "This is so far beyond a disgruntled little group of rebels, which is how Mike Farrell characterizes us.

"This isn't about any election, but our entire union being hijacked. It will create another level of bureaucracy and another level of paid staffs."

The two unions have talked about merging since the 1930s. The most recent effort was shot down in 1999 by SAG members concerned that their union would come out on the short end.

SAG represents film and prime-time TV actors, whereas AFTRA represents actors in soap operas, news broadcasters, recording artists and such performers as game show hosts. SAG and AFTRA traditionally have divided their turf into two distinct areas: SAG representing actors in projects shot on film, AFTRA representing those performing on videotape.

But the proliferation of digitally recorded programs has opened a fresh battleground between the two unions competing for jurisdiction. Ending that confrontation is one of the key goals of those who propose folding the unions together.

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