BACK STAGE WEST

           

May 15, 2003 

 

     

Minority Report

SAG would be giving up its unique power in proposed "super-union," say opponents.

 

by Rob Kendt

"I'm an actor--I'm not a 'media artist,'" said Frances Fisher, referring dismissively to the proposed Alliance of International Media Artists (AIMA), a consolidated umbrella union for performers favored by the majority of the boards of Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, and scheduled to be voted on by SAG and AFTRA members next month. Fisher and SAG national treasurer Kent McCord, two vocal opponents of the proposed consolidation, met with Back Stage West last week to offer their side of the debate--a debate which, they have complained, won't be aired in any official SAG literature because the SAG board vote on consolidation came down 87 percent pro to 13 percent con, and a 25 percent dissent is required to trigger the inclusion of a "minority report" in voting materials.

 

Their opposition may best be summed up by their two-word slogan: Save SAG. They believe that SAG's hard-won brand name, bargaining clout, and, above all, its autonomy will be compromised, even forfeited, in the proposed "super-union," which is divided into an actors affiliate, a broadcasters affiliate, and a recording artists affiliate. Despite assurances that this new AIMA structure will be dominated proportionally by actors--with 25 seats elected by the actors affiliate on the 35-person AIMA board--Fisher and McCord remain skeptical, pointing to provisions in the new AIMA constitution that would allow the AIMA board to override decisions by any individual affiliate with a 60 percent vote.

 

"Let's say you have Bonnie Raitt, who's a member of both," said Fisher. "Let's say she runs for the AIMA board through SAG, and maybe SAG wants to strike, and the AIMA council decides, Well, it's going to have an adverse effect on one of these other affiliates. If those 25 seats are not held by real, true actors--held by a broadcaster who has a SAG card, a recording artist who has a SAG card--it could shift the vote. It sounds bad, but whenever I go into a contract negotiation, I always look at the worst-case scenario, because that's what could happen."

 

"Guarantee those seats are going to be actors, and maybe that would assuage some of the issues," said McCord. "But there are other, larger issues."

 

Indeed there are: McCord painted a dark scenario in which the hoped-for merger of SAG and AFTRA health plans, one of the consolidation's big selling points, would lead to more members qualifying for the health plan. That's great, right? Not according to McCord: The rising costs of servicing more participants, he said, would mean heightened eligibility requirements and/or higher premiums.

 

This dissenting minority has similar glass-half-empty answers for every purported advantage to be gained by consolidating--the supposed savings of joining forces won't materialize; jurisdictional disputes ought to be settled through national labor mediators--but they boil down to distrust of their proposed bedfellows.

 

"We would be consolidating with a union that has a history of allowing their own members to work non-union with no repercussions," said Fisher, pointing to AFTRA's lack of success organizing such mega-companies as CNN, MSNBC, and CNBC. "Why does the Screen Actors Guild have to get involved with a company that's so ineptly run? Because they want to piggyback on us?"

 

And when AFTRA president John Connolly talks about the inevitability of jurisdictional disputes between the performers' unions over such gray areas as digital media, Fisher hears a veiled threat.

 

"What AFTRA's doing [is] going in and undercutting actors, selling actors at a cheaper rate, in shows that have not been organized yet, and then the leadership of AFTRA says, 'You've got to merge with us, because if you don't, we're going to continue to undercut you and continue to poach your jurisdiction, and it's going to be war.' I don't want to get into bed with somebody who's holding a gun to my head. I say, Let's deal with AFTRA over there, make them get their [stuff] together, organize their own jurisdiction, thank you very much--then maybe we'll talk."

 

Of course, AFTRA's organizing challenges could be seen as an argument for consolidation--not only to resolve jurisdictional issues but also to lend some of SAG's bargaining clout in areas in which AFTRA could use it. According to McCord, this won't work because broadcasters and actors can't do "sympathy" strikes--Tom Cruise isn't going to walk off a set for Larry King or Bonnie Raitt, or vice versa. But more important, McCord is not interested in giving up what he sees as SAG's singular power in the industry.

 

"We're the most unique union in the world," said McCord. "We represent the most visible people in the world. We are very, very good at what we do. We have created the models around the world for protection of performers, for their wages and their working conditions. What is happening here is, we are giving [away] 70 years of not only branding, 70 years of assets, 70 years of the… best hope for actors working anywhere in the world…. What we're doing is throwing it all into a cocked hat."

 

The unions' last attempt to merge, in 1998, went down to defeat in a vote of the membership, with 38 percent of the SAG board against it. Though McCord quipped that the new consolidation plan is "same pig, different lipstick," there's no argument that it faces a much smaller opposition than the previous attempt. Why are McCord and Fisher so isolated? Fisher called it "a conspiracy of silence," and McCord said simply, "I can't answer for any human being other than me and the position I'm advocating. My position is real clear: This plan is not a good plan for actors."