January 25, 1999

The historic vote on the proposed merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists is coming down to the wire: Ballots must be returned today no later than 5 p.m. today. The ballots, which went out to the unions' 120,000 members in November, won't be tabulated until later this week and the vote may not be known until Wednesday or Thursday.

To be approved, the proposed merger must be endorsed by more than 60% of the voting members in each union. If approved, the new union will be called SAG/AFTRA. No one knows for sure how the vote will go, but most of those who have been following the merger debate feel that AFTRA's members will approve the merger by a wide margin -- somewhere in the neighborhood of 70%-75%.

The vote is expected to be much closer at SAG, where opponents of the merger -- rallying under the banner of a group called Save SAG -- have mounted a serious challenge to the proposed merger. By all indications, the SAG vote could go either way: Going down to defeat with as few as 55% of the members voting to approve the merger, or winning the day with as many as 65% of the members approving it.

SAG president Richard Masur, writing in what could be the last issue of SAG's Screen Actor magazine, said: "If merger fails by a slim margin, many of us will be sorely disappointed, but we must all be willing and prepared to respect the decision of the membership and move on. On the other hand, if merger succeeds, it is incumbent upon us all to pull together to achieve a smooth and harmonious transition to the new SAG/AFTRA."

The presidents of the unions support the merger, as do a majority of the members who sit on the unions' national boards of directors. Celebrities have lined up on both sides. Those who support the merger include Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas, Sally Field, Meryl Streep, Jack Lemmon, Barbra Streisand, Billy Crystal, Morgan Freeman, Sharon Stone, Jane Alexander, Glenn Close and Christopher Reeve. Those opposed to the merger include Arnold Schwarzenegger, Martin Landau, Robert Culp, Ron Howard, Louise Fletcher, LeVar Burton, Robby Benson, Lee Meriwether and former SAG presidents Charlton Heston, Dennis Weaver and Howard Keel.

Plans to merge the two unions have been in the works for more than 50 years, but didn't get serious until the mid-1970s, when the unions created committees to study the issues and to make recommendations to the unions' boards. In 1981, the unions agreed to enter "Phase One" of the proposed merger -- a step that allowed them to jointly negotiate and ratify all major film and TV contracts.

The two unions began talking seriously again in the mid-1980s, but those talks collapsed in 1988 when the unions could not agree on what type of government would rule the new union. The modern era of merger talks began in 1991, when SAG president Barry Gordon and AFTRA president Reid Farrell agreed to form a small committee to look at what had been done to date, and to see if the process could be moved forward. Those talks led to the formation of a larger committee, which eventually came to a consensus on proposals for a merger -- proposals that were later modified, and then approved, by the unions' boards of directors.

The proposed merger calls for:
-- A strong national board of directors that will be "responsible for the general management, direction and control of the affairs, funds and properties" of the new union;
-- Six national officers, including a president, a secretary-treasurer and four vice presidents;
-- Thirty semi-autonomous locals;
ĽA biennial convention that will nominate national officers;
-- A new dues structure that will tie future dues increases to the cost of living.

Supporters say that the merger will end jurisdictional disputes between the unions; streamline their operations; and give the new union more clout at the bargaining table. Opponents say that the merger will create higher dues for the members who can least afford to pay them; will not give the new union any more clout than they currently have, and will not produce a merger of the union's pension and health plans.

Copyright January 1999 The Hollywood Reporter and BPI Communications Inc. All rights reserved.