Hollywood's two main actors unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, early Monday morning took a historic step toward combining their two unions.
The Group for One Union, which is made up of leaders of SAG and AFTRA, hammered out an agreement to merge the unions after nine days of intensive talks -- held out of the public view at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel.
Neither of the unions would publicly comment on the agreement, but people familiar with the matter said it contains a proposed constitution, governance structure, and dues-payment plan for what would be the largest labor group in Hollywood.
The proposed merger plan comes after nearly two years of negotiations between leaders of both groups to join forces in a bid to gain more leverage in contract negotiations with employers and to end a long history of feuding over bargaining strategy and other matters.
While SAG represents about 125,000 actors, AFTRA claims more than 70,000 members, including actors, broadcasters, disc jockeys, singers and dancers. At least 40,000 people are members of both unions.
The plan is to be recommended later this month to SAG's and AFTRA's respective boards, which are expected to formally endorse the merger document before it is sent to members for a ratification vote, possibly in April. The merger will take effect only if at least 60% of those who vote endorse the plan.
As expected, the proposed constitution represents an attempt to combine the different cultures of the two groups, said one person who was involved in the confidential talks but asked not to be identified. For example, national officers, including the president and secretary-treasurer, would be elected directly by members. However, some other positions, including that of an executive vice president, would be elected by delegates at a convention held every two years, a nod to AFTRA's tradition of using conventions and delegates. SAG elects its officers directly by a vote of members.
A previous attempt at merging the unions narrowly failed in 2003, partly out of fears that SAG would lose its autonomy.
Support for the idea, however, appears to have grown on both sides in the aftermath of an ugly and highly public fight that erupted in 2008, when AFTRA suspended its longtime bargaining partnership with SAG and negotiated a separate prime-time TV contract with the studios. The split hurt SAG's bargaining leverage and its coffers, as producers swung most new prime-time TV shows to AFTRA because it was perceived as the more stable union.
The splintering of work between the unions has taken a toll on actors as well. Many have complained that it is tougher for them to earn the minimum pay necessary to maintain or qualify for health and pension benefits because their work is increasingly divided between SAG and AFTRA.
The merger plan, however, does not address how the unions' separate health and pension plans will be combined, a key question for many. That issue is expected to be addressed with trustees of the plans once a merger deal is finalized.
Actors unions moving closer to merger agreement
SAG board is expected to proceed with AFTRA merger
Actors lose out on health benefits as SAG, AFTRA keep separate plans
-- Richard Verrier