SAG Vetoes Merger With AFTRA

Forget about a union of unions.

By a slim margin, the Screen Actors Guild members voted down the proposed merger between SAG and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, Variety reports.

Following a ballot-count that took all day, the results were announced late Tuesday at the Radisson Wilshire Plaza Hotel in Hollywood, Calif. and showed support from nearly 58 percent of SAG voters, just 2 percent shy of the 60 percent required to pass SAG legislation. AFTRA, on the other hand, approved the merger by a whopping 75 percent.

The acrimonious campaign has been a hotly debated topic for the members of SAG since it was first proposed. Proponents lead by SAG president Melissa Gilbert claimed that combining SAG and AFTRA would lead to greater bargaining clout with studios and operating efficiencies along with resolving jurisdictional disputes.

Opponents to the merger, lead by actors Valerie Harper, Ed Asner and Elliott Gould, were able to persuade voters that SAG would be a shell of itself under the new structure and that the new union would be less responsive to the unique needs of actors, and how their pension and health plans would be affected by the merger was unclear.

“I am shell-shocked,” Gilbert said at the press conference, while AFTRA president John Connolly blamed the opposition’s tactics for the defeat. “Fear is a powerful motivator in an election,” he said. “They used everything they could to instill fear.”

“I am so thrilled. The members really came through,” Reuters reports board member Harper said at the news conference. “It was an ill-conceived, unwieldy conglomerate idea. It was hastily put together, foisted upon and then sold to the members in the form of slogans,” continued Harper, who unsuccessfully ran twice for the SAG presidency against the more moderate Gilbert.

SAG has about 98,000 members–of whom about three-quarters are unemployed at any one time–and AFTRA 77,000 members, though some 44,000 performers maintain membership in both guilds. The two unions have been trying to merge for nearly 60 years and the last merger vote, in 1999, was defeated by 52 percent of SAG voters, Reuters reports.

Even though the “consolidation and affiliation” plan is now only a pipe dream, SAG and AFTRA must prepare for a new battle this fall, by starting up a round of high-stakes negotiations with the advertising industry on a commercials contract. According to Reuters, the last talks, in 2000, resulted in a bitter six-month strike.