Union Mergers – Actors Lead the Way

Posted on April 1, 2012 by

Among the biggest obstacles to union survival or revival are antiquated organizational structures.

The recent merger of two Hollywood unions – The Screen Actors Guild [SAG] and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists [AFTRA] – is a sensible response to changing workplace conditions.

Many of the consolidations of the past several years involve the acquisition of relatively small unions by larger ones.

For example, the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America (CWA) now includes the Newspaper Guild (TNG), the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) and the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET).

Some mergers have backfired, notably – and ironically – Unite Here, which sought to combine workers in the garment and hotel industries.

Then, of course, there are “disaffiliations” – Change to Win (CTW) breaks from the AFL-CIO in 2005 – and, worst of all, union raids on each others members and jurisdictions.

All this happening at a time when unions represent a shrinking share of American workers.

So the 80 percent plus vote by actors and other on-air performers to approve SAG – AFTRA is a good sign.

And an opportunity for some of the most famous union members in America to take a bow.

Comments (17)


  1. Frank Stricker says:

    why did libs and lefties like Ed Harri and Martin Sheen oppose the merger?

  2. Gavin Koon says:

    A merger that makes good sense. After years of SAG and AFTRA wrestling between themselves over TV production and who represents what – no longer can the producers pit them against each other for more favorable terms and conditions. I suspect a few opposed due to fear of losing control or voice with a larger group involved. Maybe a few have aspirations to be producers. There is some elitism with in the groups that think a lessor group would lower the bar. I think the working members involved will benefit the most from the merger- from dues (no dual members – close to 60%-70% are dual members), to better representation, combined strength in pension/health plans, and ulimately better contracts.

    • Dave Clennon says:

      The most reliable source for ascertaining an actor’s credits is the Internet Movie Data-base, or IMDb. Under the name Gavin Koon I can only find one credit, for “Follow that Dream” with Elvis Presley in 1962.

      If the above commentator is that Gavin Koon, his comments about the blessings of merger should be taken with a grain of salt.

      His observations are speculative and don’t sound like those of a rank-and-file actor who has recently worked any of the contracts, or who has observed first-hand the backstabbing and poaching by one of the partners in this merger.

      I’m willing to be corrected on this score.

      • Bartram Bill says:

        Dave, your and membershipfirst’s obsession with imdb credits is laughable. Can’t a fellow member have an opinion? I am a working SAG AFTRA member vested in both plans, working every day and this merger is the smartest thing that we have ever done. The only thing I can attribute a no vote to on the part of the 18%’ers is a sad nostalgia for days and careers gone by.

      • Dave Clennon says:

        “BARTRAM BILL” is what we call a “baghead.” A baghead is a blog comment-poster who doesn’t have the courage or the decency to identify herself/himself. Think of the anonymity afforded to a Klansman wearing a hood. (Lots of them on show business labor sites.)

        Doesn’t mean the baghead is right or wrong. Just means he/she doesn’t have the guts to stand behind his/her comments.

        Is there a Bill Bartram out there somewhere, posing as Bartram Bill?

      • Dave Clennon says:

        Quick response to Baghead Bill:

        I said I was willing to be corrected on the matter of Gavin Koon’s qualifications to speak so authoritatively about what’s best for screen actors.

        If you want to verify Mr. Koon’s track record as an actor, by all means, visit other sources besides IMDb.com. Go to Fandango.com. Mr. Koons sole credit there is “Follow That Dream,” starring Elvis Presley.

        Keep looking. If you continue your search, you’ll come to the web page touting “The ELVIS Cruise,” January 12-16, 2012, Jacksonville to Nassau. Mr. Koon is listed as one of the celebrity guests on that cruise. That’s how I know that Mr. Koon is still in Show Business. Here is a short biographical sketch from “The ELVIS Cruise” (including credits I was not aware of!):

        “Gavin started out as a child actor. His film credits include a role with his twin brother in the 1962 film “Follow That Dream” with Elvis Presley. He also had parts in “All The Comforts of Home,” “Triple Trouble,” “Julia” and “The Lawrence Welk Show.”

        “In September 2004, Gavin joined the I.A.T.S.E. [Intnat'l Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts] which represents 115,000 persons working in entertainment behind the scene professions throughout the United States and Canada.”

        Definitely still in Show Business.

        What I do not know is whether or not Mr. Koon still holds a membership card in what used to be the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Some people who no longer act, or try to get work as actors, used to pay the minimum SAG dues anyway, in order to retain their membership, for its “prestige” value. They’re known as SAG “vanity card holders.” (Will they want to pay dues to the new merged entity, for the prestige value?)

        Obviously, if Mr. Koon holds a SAG vanity card, he’s more than qualified to opine about what’s best for actors.

        As far as I’m aware, no such “vanity” value ever attached to the AFTRA membership card.

        • Bartram Bill says:

          Dave, you had a great career. Why do you feel the need to make fun of Mr. Koon’s career?
          Self-image issues? Me thinks THAT informs your rage-filled anti-union rant here. Did your yen for unionism die for you in the good old days? Are your labor-side sentiments a temporal thing? I say quit obsessing and grousing and look to the future and support your union.

  3. Dave Clennon says:

    A good union, SAG, just got busted from within by being merged with a bad union, AFTRA.

    The result will be one, big, WEAK union. I will give Lou $50 if this mutant union goes on strike for actors anytime in the next 10 years.

    I have a lot more to say about this. Soon. It’s a long, sad story.

    • Dave Clennon says:

      Boy oh boy, is this a bad call! I’ve never been on this laborlou site before, but … Wow! Did Lou consult with any actors about this? Did he ask Martin Sheen and Ed Asner why they were fiercely opposed to it?

      Did Lou know that merger was strongly endorsed by four famous SAG members, who also happen to be among the biggest EMPLOYERS of their fellow union members? Those four actor-employers are Tom Hanks (The Playtone Company), George Clooney (Smokehouse Productions), Robert DeNiro (Tribeca Film) and Danny DeVito (Jersey Films and Television). Conflict-of-interest is too mild a term for the kinds of activities these gentlemen are engaged in.

      Hanks, Clooney, DeNiro and DeVito are all more-or-less Hollywood liberals. And members of the Screen Actors Guild look up to them and trust them.

      But none of these artist-businessmen have the labor union credentials of Martin Sheen and Ed Asner. None of them have the instinctive empathy of Ed Harris toward rank-and-file actors.

      On the surface, merging different labor organizations looks like a good idea.

      “Strength in numbers.”

      But what kind of numbers?

      If you merge a crappy union with a good union, do you get a better union?

      What’s a crappy union? One example: the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists — AFTRA.
      I joined the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) in 1972. Then I had to join AFTRA in 1975 so I could do a part in “Barney Miller.”

      Every single AFTRA contract I ever signed was inferior to the SAG contract for comparable work, under a different jurisdiction.

      In 2003, after the last merger attempt was rejected, AFTRA began to invade SAG jurisdiction. AFTRA offered producers sweetheart deals for cable TV shows. They sold their members cheaper than SAG was willing to sell theirs.

      In 2009, AFTRA made its big move. They began to raid SAG jurisdiction in primetime network TV. Networks, studios and producers were happy to make deals with AFTRA. As employers, they saved money and they gained the added satisfaction of punishing SAG which had a tradition of militancy — the old-fashioned militancy which made SAG contracts better than AFTRA’s. And the like-minded “moderate” leadership of SAG was content to let AFTRA go its predatory way. President Ken Howard and his cohorts actually wanted SAG to be weakened to the point where more that 60% of the demoralized members would agree to marry their abuser.

      Then SAG and AFTRA took $5 million dollars of the members dues money and mounted a very effective propaganda campaign to sell merger to SAG members (they didn’t have to sell AFTRA members — they all knew SAG was a better union and they were enthusiastic about allying themselves with it).

      The leaderships of SAG and AFTRA sold merger on two basic premises: First, “more bargaining strength;” second, the two unions’ health and pension plans would be merged, so that all employer contributions would go into one fund, instead of being split between AFTRA’s fund and SAG’s fund. The split-contribution situation meant that it was harder for actors to qualify for insurance or pension credits with either union.

      “More bargaining strength” should translate into better wages and better residuals for actors (residuals are much like royalties received by song writers and recording artists; residuals are an essential part of the rank-and-file actor’s income). Better wages and residuals would have to come out of the producers’ pockets. Producers like Tom Hanks or Paramount Pictures have teams of lawyers and accountants whose job is to guage, quite precisely, the bargaining strength of every adversary they will face over the negotiating table. The studios and networks were uncharacteristically reticent during the merger campaign. When the vote tally was announced, the employers negotiating body, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) immediately congratulated the new bargaining entity.

      And, as noted above, producer-employers Hanks, Clooney, DeNiro and DeVito publicly urged their fellow actors to vote in favor of the merger.

      What’s wrong with this picture?

      The official pro-merger campaign’s promise of a merged pension & health plan cannot proceed without the consent of the Boards of Trustees of the two existing plans. There is no certainty that their consent will be given. Half the members of both Boards are employer representatives. And the two plans are dramatically different in terms of benefits and accrual rates. SAG members have always fared better with their plan. A merger of plans would almost surely diminish SAG members’ benefits, when the funding bases of the two plans are commingled.

      To confuse matters further, the new union now includes thirty thousand non-actors known collectively as “broadcasters.” And broadcasters include many work categories such as talk show hosts, newscasters, radio announcers, disc jockeys, sports commentators, recording artists, etc., etc. Each category has its own very different contracts and those contracts differ wildly from the contracts under which actors work. Each contract requires negotiators to acquire a complicated expertise. It’s very difficult for a relatively small union like SAG-AFTRA to pay for the expensive skills of experts in very different kinds of contract negotiations.

      This is a merger of unions engineered for actors and actor producers who don’t need a union. The 1%, maybe the top 2.5% have triumphed over the 99% or 97.5%. It’s a tribute to propaganda skills and the ruthless raiding of jurisdictions that 82% of voting members were beaten down fooled. These union bosses and their wealthy employer patrons want no strikes & no threats of strikes to interrupt their flow of income and of corporate revenue. Yes, there will be “labor peace” for many years to come.

      No solidarity here.

      • Bartram Bill says:

        Dave, the silly and unconstructive thing about what you’re saying is all of these complaints stem from personal animosities and incidents that took place years ago between the elected officers of aftra and sag. Yours is an obsessive and wrong-headed position that has nothing to do with the future or even the present.
        AFTRA was pushed to the bargaining table by an intransigent and undemocratic claque of leaders in SAG who have been voted out; and did you look at the numbers – 77% of your own Hollywood local of which I am a member voted to merge.
        Are you a Democrat or are you a reactionary who can not let go of the past?

        • Dave Clennon says:

          Note to self: Stop bickering with bagheads (anonymous posters). (Including “nodrama.”) Wastes time & energy.

          Further: Assume bagheads sincerely believe what they write, just don’t have the balls to own it. (But if they believe it, why don’t they own it? Shut up. No bickering.)

          Meanwhile, for reader-visitors who care to check out two articles that are signed and FACT-CHECKED, I propose one by Variety’s hard-working labor reporter, Dave McNary:

          It’s unclear how much performers will benefit from merger (Variety, April 1, 2012)


          And I humbly recommend my own essay on the website Dissident Voice:

          LABOR AND THE 1%: Oscar is Not Hollywood’s Most Fateful Vote (Dissident Voice, February 25, 2012)


          My piece (fact-checked and footnoted) is older, but it contains a brief & lively recounting of the history leading up to the merger vote.

    • Bartram Bill says:

      Point by point I read your complaints about this merger, and I can not see any logic – only old wounds.
      1) You say: “Every single AFTRA contract I ever signed was inferior to the SAG contract for comparable work, under a different jurisdiction.”
      My response: Horse Pucky. If you have been awake and conscious since 1981 you know that SAG & AFTRA have been jointly negotiating contracts via Phase 1 to Merger for 33 years, the purpose of which was to have SAG’s & AFTRA’s commercial, TV/theatrical, and industrial contracts on par, dollar-for-dollar. (Have you worked in the last 33 years? If you have, you know Phase 1 has been in effect and SAG’s & AFTRA’s jointly negotiated contracts have been identical.)
      2) “In 2003, after the last merger attempt was rejected, AFTRA began to invade SAG jurisdiction.”
      My response: More Horse Pucky. AFTRA has had jurisdiction in television since its inception, and in prime time since digital photography came on the scene.
      3) You say, “AFTRA offered producers sweetheart deals for cable TV shows. They sold their members cheaper than SAG was willing to sell theirs.”
      My response: Three Horse Puckeys and you’re out. Your membershipfirst pals on the SAG board tried to abort Phase 1 to Merger because they couldn’t stand having AFTRA vote alongside them (Davey hates Johnny, George hates Johnny – just like the schoolyard, only THIS happens to be a union. Mussolini didn’t want the Socialists voting alongside the Fascistas either.) Your then-exec and Prez and intransigent board members stalled at the negotiating table with the AMPTP, thinking that was a smart tactic. AFTRA (70% SAG members) with a fiduciary responsibility to its membership to negotiate Front-of-Book went to the bargaining table in a timely manner after months of intra-union Allen/Alan bullyboy nonsense and negotiated increases for members better than what the SAG TV/Theatrical agreement ever had. You know this, but to admit it flushes your SAG-as-victim argument down the turr-lett. Repeat your “argument” enough times and it becomes true. SAG has done (and wisely so) exactly what AFTRA has done in cable: offered low budget cable contracts and agreements like the SAG Ultra-Low Budget actors’ agreement at $100 a day. What – SAG can offer contracts appropriate to the production, but AFTRA can’t? Come on.
      4) You say: “The official pro-merger campaign’s promise of a merged pension & health plan cannot proceed without the consent of the Boards of Trustees of the two existing plans.”
      My response: I agree. Of course it can’t. And it also can’t proceed without a merged union. Could SAG have audited AFTRA’s plan…SAG audited AFTRA’s…? Of course not. Now that the two unions have merged, members can hash out merged plans vs. new plans, and suggest them to the plans’ Boards. How else would you suggest we address split-contribs? Decertify AFTRA as a union for actors? (I can hear your answer. You’re in questionable company, as your cheerleader AngelAngelAngel Tom-tom tried that six years ago and was told by the NLRB, “No, you ninny.” Now that she’s gone you’ve got a few obsessives with anger issues willing to go down that path with you.
      5) You say actors, broadcasters, etc., should not be merged into the same union because, “Each category has its own very different contracts and those contracts differ wildly from the contracts under which actors work.”
      My response: You of course are aware that each category will vote on its own contracts, that actors’ fights for increases in residuals, dvd’s etc., will be handled by actors. The Teamsters seems to be doing quite well with truckers, teachers, nurses, doctors, office workers together in the same union. But YOU are special? No one can understand you? Obviously 82% of SAG actors don’t feel we’re so special that we can’t do the right thing for union performers and merge for power.
      Dave, I watched, the Eds’ videos, Marty’s video, and I see the same lack of logic and the same fanning of old grudges against Johnny and AFTRA’s perceived weakness and greed – all the old arguments that we, the SAG membership see as without merit, thus our Board vote in ’09 and our overwhelming merger vote in ’12.
      Thank God for democracy in our unions. I firmly believe if you and your 18%’ers had their way, the demi-bikers would be back in the room with their aviator shades and dull stares, and we’d be on your way to jackboots and weird flags.

    • monica Richardson says:

      The merger was a huge mistake as we can see my husbands residuals checks use to come in the mail daily. Now we have to go down to SAG and Demand his money. Things are very very bad and this did not help.

      Those of us who attended all the meetings know the truth about how AFTRA undercut SAG in the last negotiations.

      Many stars you mention are Producers now and they want to just save money. Its just wrong.

  4. nodrama says:

    Dave, the lunatic thing about what you are saying is questioning whether or not the new union will strike. In a membership of 151,000, 120,000 were originally SAG members. If they would have struck as SAG members, they will strike as SAG-AFTRA members. But you need to think about what thoughtless blustery strikes have brought the actors. In 1988, I think it was, there was a strike of TV and Reality TV was born. The commercial strike of 2000 brought the commercials made off shore and the really ill conceived slow down in TV in 2008 gave most of TV to AFTRA. So having the ability to strategize is worth way more than simply striking to say you did. You know?

  5. The proof of the greatness of this merger will soon be apparent. Stay tuned.

  6. Gavin Koon says:

    I think I must respond. I do have more TV/films credits than listed in IMDB plus I have worked behind the camera as a senic artist for 18 years, then became a Union Business Representative for both a Local Union and later an International (I.A.T.S.E.) with more than 16 years of Union Labor experience. I also know all or most of the parties in question – I think gives me a fair right to express an opinion – unlike Mr.Clennon, who would rather attack an opinion than give one – he is jobviously oppossed due to his opinion of AFTRA – I can respect his opinion, but not an attack on a personal leevel. Given the high vote count in favor of the merger by both Unions, you must respect the will of the majority – a founding Union principle. Time will tell if it was asound decision. The parties could continue to have wrestling matches or figure out a way to go forward for the best benefit of the members.

  7. Dave Clennon says:

    There were two factions within the Screen Actors Guild: the moderates and the militants.

    For the record, I’m a militant. I don’t believe that moderate regimes win any benefits for rank-and-file actors.

    Under moderate regimes, the top 3% to 5% of actors continue to thrive. Moderates will never (hardly ever!) interrupt the income streams of the successful, more deserving, actors.

    Anyone who looks at labor history knows that advances for rank-and-file workers, including actors, have been won by militants. No one likes going out on strike. They’re brutal. They turn everyday life upside-down. Strikers’ families suffer. But, usually, the credible threat of a strike is the only thing that moves intransigent employers. And sometimes we have to make good on the strike threat. That’s my uneducated, gut-felt opinion.

    I can’t see that moderates have the stomach for tough negotiating. They seem to prefer a congenial relationship with management. It’s better for the 5% and better for their own careers. They don’t like to spoil the mood by even whispering the S-word.

    (By the way, if “qualified voting” comes up again, during this moderate regime, I’m afraid the Board or the Convention will pass it, without a referendum by the members. I don’t think that’s fair or democratic. I know many others disagree.)

    I’d like to commend Mr Koon and Mr McGuire for having the integrity to sign their own opinions.

    Their predictions for “the greatness of this merger” and “a way to go forward for the best benefit of the members” may prove to be right. I sincerely hope their good wishes come true. I’ve had a great run — “fuckin’ lucky” is what I’ve been. If Mr Koon & Mr McGuire’s vision is realized, the next generation of actors could be as fortunate as I. May it be so.

    I refer women and men of good will to the two articles I mentioned above. (LEVERAGE LIFT FOR THESPS?
    It’s unclear how much performers will benefit from merger, April 1, 2012
    and . . .
    LABOR AND THE 1%: Oscar is Not Hollywood’s Most Fateful Vote

    I’m going to retire from the field now. I haven’t the talent for bickering with bagheads. They’re way more clever than I am. And they seem to have a lot more time on their hands.

    I’m a simple-minded foot soldier. Good-by for now. Maybe we’ll meet face-to-face someday and we’ll all have something to celebrate. The first round’s on me.

Leave a Reply