Performers' unions confirm merger plan

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Feb. 6, 2003 at 1:51 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Feb. 6 (UPI) -- Officials of the two main unions representing actors confirmed Thursday that they are considering a plan to merge operations.

The national boards of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists will meet jointly by teleconference Saturday to discuss a proposal to bring the unions together under an umbrella union with three affiliates. The affiliates would operate relatively autonomously, representing the interests of unionized actors, broadcasters and recording artists.

Union officials stress that the new organization would not be a full-fledged merger.

SAG has 98,000 members and AFTRA has 70,000. About 40,000 performers belong to both unions.

The proposal is motivated by a recognition that the unions and their members are operating in a media environment that has changed dramatically since performers first organized more than seven decades ago.

Media consolidation has placed ownership of TV, movie and commercial production companies into fewer hands, with some conglomerates owning TV networks, cable channels, movie studios and other media properties. In addition, new digital technology has taken the entertainment business into directions no one could have imagined as the basic language of current labor contracts has evolved over time.

During Saturday's conference call, SAG and AFTRA officials will review the proposal that has been developed over the past several months. In a joint announcement, SAG President Melissa Gilbert and AFTRA National President John Connolly endorsed the proposal and confirmed publicly for the first time what had been widely reported in the entertainment press for some time.

"Today, actors, broadcasters and recording artists all work for the same few employers," said Gilbert and Connolly. "With more than 40,000 members in common and with our interests and futures so clearly aligned, we need to act quickly and responsibly to maintain and enhance the leverage of our membership."

SAG National Executive Director-Chief Executive Officer Bob Pisano and AFTRA National Executive Director Greg Hessinger said the proposal would put both unions in a stronger bargaining position for TV, movie and commercial contracts.

"We have an obligation to every one of our members to maximize our ability to achieve the best wages and working conditions possible and to organize the unorganized," they said.

The proposal is aimed at more than simply maximizing bargaining power. Pisano and Hessinger said it is also intended to avoid "a full-fledged expensive battle between the two organizations" over the best way to address the new digital technology.

"Management is using this new technology to seek the lowest rates possible," said Pisano and Hessinger. "The unions cannot afford to deplete their treasuries fighting each other. The only winner in this 'war' would be the employer."

Leaders of both unions are expected to mount an aggressive campaign to win membership approval of the plan. SAG membership decisively rejected a proposal to merge the unions in 1999.

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