SAG, AFTRA members overwhelmingly approve merger

Creating Hollywood’s largest entertainment union, members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists have voted overwhelmingly to form a single bargaining unit.

In an resounding show of support, SAG members voted 82% in favor of the merger, while AFTRA members voted 86% in favor. That was well above the 60% threshold needed for the combination to take effect.

The historic vote comes nearly two years after union leaders began discussions to merge in a bid to gain more leverage in contract negotiations with studios and to end a long history of jurisdictional disputes and feuding over negotiating strategy.

Referendum results were released at SAG’s headquarters in the Miracle Mile district where board members from each union anxiously gathered to await the outcome while singing the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome.”

SAG represents 125,000 actors, extras and stunt performers in movies and television shows. AFTRA has about 70,000 members who are actors as well as singers, dancers, disc jockeys, sports announcers, comedians and broadcast journalists, among others. About 40,000 people hold membership in both labor groups.

“With this overwhelming vote, you have sent a message not only to all your fellow members, but most important, you have sent a message to our employers,” SAG President Ken Howard said to loud cheers and applause. “You have said loud and clear that this is not a fractured group — no, this is a united group. This is the largest, most powerful union in the entertainment and media industries and we are now united in a our commitment to improve the wages and working conditions, residuals and benefits that our members depend on.”

AFTRA President Roberta Reardon, holding back tears, said the results were a victory for all unions.

“What is so overwhelming for me today is the sheer number of members of our unions who took the leap of faith together and voted yes for their future,” she said. “There is indeed power in a union.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the chief bargaining arm for the studios, said it “looks forward to a cooperative relationship with the new performers’ organization as we endeavor to address the challenges of operating in an industry undergoing transformation.”

The first contract negotiation for the newly consolidated union — called SAG-AFTRA — will begin in October for work in commercials. Negotiations for the union’s main film and television contract won’t get underway until at least late next year.

National officers, including the president and secretary-treasurer, will be elected directly by members, with elections being held in the summer of 2013. However, some other positions, such as an executive vice president, will be elected by delegates at a convention held every two years — a concession to AFTRA’s tradition of using conventions and delegates. SAG elects its officers directly by a vote of members.

Dues will increase for some members, including for current AFTRA-only members, and drop for others, including those who are already dual card holders.

The results represent a victory for leaders of both unions, who campaigned heavily to join forces after a bitter dispute erupted in 2008. At that time, AFTRA suspended its longtime bargaining partnership with SAG, which lost its traditional dominance in prime-time television as producers steered most of their contracts for new shows to AFTRA. SAG President Ken Howard and his supporters were elected on a pledge to merge with AFTRA.

Two previous attempts at combining the unions failed in 1999 and 2003, when 58% of SAG members voted to endorse it, falling just short of the required 60%. AFTRA members voted 76% in favor of the combination.

A group of actors including Ed Harris, Martin Sheen and Ed Asner recently filed a lawsuit to block the latest referendum vote, arguing that the SAG board breached its fiduciary duties to conduct an actuarial impact study detailing the effects of the proposed merger on health and pension benefits for SAG members. But a federal judge earlier this week rejected their request for an injunction blocking the ballot count.