By Aaron Blevins, 2/23/2012
Vote by Union Members is Due in March
While officials with the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are pushing a merger between the two unions, several SAG members — including Martin Sheen, Ed Asner and Ed Harris — have sued to block the upcoming vote.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court on Wednesday, requests an injunction from calling a vote on the merger until SAG officials complete their “due diligence” duties and satisfy their “fiduciary obligations.” Ballots were expected to be sent to AFTRA and SAG members on Feb. 27, with a 60 percent majority required in both unions.
“This case is about a race to merge two unions, without conducting the necessary due diligence,” the lawsuit, filed by attorney David Casselman, reads. “[The] defendants are, metaphorically speaking, urging SAG members to take a blindfolded high dive without knowing whether there is any water in the pool.”
Ellen Crawford, a member of the Hollywood SAG board and a second alternative to the national board, said the merger is necessary to increase the unions’ bargaining power and keep up with the evolution of the industry.
“Not only am I hopeful [that the merger is approved], I feel that it is vital,” Crawford said, adding that the merger would be especially beneficial to aspiring entertainers. “I want them to have the same wonderful benefits … I have enjoyed.”
She said many members belong to both SAG and AFTRA, which she likened to having two agents negotiate for an entertainer. Crawford said it doesn’t make sense at the bargaining table, and it puts a financial burden on some members.
“It’s really prohibitively expensive for a young actor to join both entities,” she added.
Furthermore, new media offerings from companies like Google, ESPN and CNN have also forced rapid change in the industry since 2003, said Gabrielle Carteris, AFTRA Los Angeles local president. A merger would bring further resources and power to combat such change, she said.
“That’s stuff that was never around twenty, thirty years ago,” Carteris said. “The future is right now.”
She said the two entities had publicly tried to merge in 1998 and 2003. In 2003, the merger vote lost by 2 percent. Carteris said the two unions started the formal committee process to discuss a possible merger in June 2011.
“We had to look at what we wanted for the 21st Century, since the industry has changed so much,” she added.
Carteris said AFTRA and SAG have had intense meetings regarding the merger, and the national boards reached a consensus to proceed. She said officials went on a national listening tour during that time, eliciting feedback about the potential move in the process.
“It was really a great process,” Carteris said. “I don’t think the unions have ever worked together that way.”
However, the lawsuit contends that the merger is being deceptively presented without an actuarial study. It also claims that officials have not studied actual pension and health plan data or assessed consequences of the merger. According to the suit, the plaintiffs offered to research a potential loss of benefits, but it was rejected.
“[The] defendants moved forward in a surreptitious fashion misrepresenting the risks of the proposed merger while blocking collection and dissemination of information crucial to an informed and legitimate election,” the lawsuit reads.
SAG has approximately 120,000 members, while AFTRA has approximately 70,000. Ballots for the merger vote are due on March 30. For information, visit www.sagaftra.org.