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Opinion

The SAG-AFTRA vote’s lesson for Washington

The overwhelming vote by union members to merge the two top actors’ guilds made me think I was wrong to side with the GOP on the issue of railway and airline unions.

Republicans on Capitol Hill, particularly those in the House, are eager to overturn the National Mediation Board’s reinterpretation of a key provision of a federal law governing railroad and airline workers. The law states that a majority of any craft or class of workers has the right to form a union, and the board had long considered “majority” to mean more than half of the workers eligible to vote on the issue. In 2010, however, the board -- controlled by two members appointed by President Obama -- said that “majority” meant more than half of the workers who actually cast ballots.

The House GOP inserted a provision to undo the board’s decision into a bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration, sparking a battle with Democrats and the White House that temporarily shut down federal airport construction projects and cost Washington half a billion dollars in lost taxes. The two sides finally settled the dispute last month, enacting an FAA reauthorization bill that leaves the board’s new interpretation intact but raises the percentage of workers who must express interest before a vote to unionize can be held.

Back when the scuffle began, I thought Republicans had a point, as a matter of statutory interpretation. If the law says a majority of workers has the right to choose representation, it made sense to me to require an actual majority to do so.

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Fast-forward to Friday’s announcement.

The Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists disclosed that more than 80% of the ballots cast by each group’s members favored the merger. The proposal was important enough to prompt 53% of SAG’s members and 52% of AFTRA’s to cast ballots. That’s a huge turnout -- roughly twice what these unions get for a strike authorization vote.

I’ll take no stand here on whether the merger was the right move for either or both units. Critics, particularly those within SAG, argued that the combined group won’t have the focus that SAG did, given the broader range of its members’ talents and professions. Proponents, who’ve been trying for more than a decade to meld the two groups, argued that merging the more than 150,000 actors, news readers, singers, radio personalities and other performers would give the new entity unrivaled clout.

The merger is a very big deal, and the heavy turnout and the lopsided vote make abundantly clear that a majority of both unions want to make the leap. But the tally in favor falls short of a majority as the National Mediation Board used to define it. Considering the percentage of ballots returned, nearly 100% approval would have been required -- regardless of how high the turnout was in comparison to previous elections.

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That’s a vivid illustration of the absurdity of the mediation board’s previous reading of the law. A “no” vote should require an actual vote, not an abstention.

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