We have reviewed all available documents about the merger plan, many of which are listed above so you can read them yourself. We believe that a single united, effective and powerful union would be best for actors. But we have MANY concerns about this merger plan, especially as it relates to child actors, and we want to share them with you. We cannot in good conscience tell you to vote YES, and keeping within our usual manner, we would like to give you information so that you can educate yourself and your child and decide what you think is best for the future. Please don’t pass up your opportunity to vote because you don’t feel that you understand enough, and please don’t vote until you’ve reviewed this document and at least some of the links above, where other opinions can be reviewed. Our kids deserve our attention on this one!
About us: For more than a decade, we have had the opportunity to have a lot of visibility within SAG, and AFTRA. Our children are members of both unions and we have watched the path of both SAG and AFTRA. We’ve happily served as advisors to the SAG Young Performer’s Committee. We’ve enjoyed good working relationships with many staff members of both SAG and AFTRA. We are always concerned about child performers having a voice and having their concerns met in the same manner that adult members do. It’s no secret we’ve not seen eye to eye on everything that both entities have done in the past. Just to be clear, we aren’t just cheerleading, here. But we’ve been around long enough to see unintended consequences of well-meaning decisions from both SAG and AFTRA.
We encourage you to think for yourself. You will hear many voices, including ours. We are concerned about the people you will hear supporting this merger plan: you will see "name" actors (many of which are also producers, and thus have a vested interest in a weak union) and you will see the Board members who crafted the plan (who stand to get a new paycheck under the merger). All of them have something to gain. Please analyze the facts of this merger for yourself. As always, Bizparentz has no money to be made, and no "agenda" other than what is good for kid actors.
Here are our thoughts...
Overall, this merger proposal is very much AFTRA culture. If you have FAITH (the belief in things you cannot see) that a merged union will be an improvement and that the leaders will work the details out later, perhaps you will vote YES. If you are working on the facts presented, perhaps you will vote NO.
Specifically, the facts presented would cause MANY things to change. Change can go one way or the other, and we don’t have a crystal ball. However, we think it’s important for people to realize the obvious areas where this will not just be business as usual.
15 CHANGES IN THIS MERGER PROPOSAL
1. Governance -- Less Transparency and Corporate Accountability: The new union will incorporate as a non-stock corporation in Delaware. Delaware is infamous for being a ‘go to state” for an easy shell corporation, for having little or no transparency, and few tax benefits. We have to wonder why the new union would choose this foundational change in structure. Currently SAG is a California non-profit and AFTRA is a New York unincorporated association. ***
2. Governance -- Less Democracy and Kids Lose Direct Vote: SAG currently operates under a direct voting democracy--we vote for Board Members, and we vote directly on the major contracts. AFTRA operates under an indirect, convention type democracy with delegates. The merger plan presents a convention structure where some delegates are appointed and others elected, but general members like us would not vote on contracts or on most issues. The convention will occur only every two years. In other words, it is a loss of direct democracy for SAG members. As you become more aware of union activities – you will notice that there are factions within each of the unions best compared to political parties in our government. The risks of this type of governance change could mirror the layers of representation and party favoritism that we witness in our government every day. Is that something you want?
For children, this structure is especially troubling because there would be no function for representation of kids. The merger constitution says that only people 18 years and older may serve on the board or as delegates to the convention. Young performers can serve on committees, but committees are advisory-only by nature. The new merger plan has committees established for broadcasters, but none for young performers. AFTRA does not have a functioning Young Performers Committee, although Paul Petersen has apparently been appointed the chairperson. Will the knowledgeable people who have served on the SAG Young Performers Committee for many years even have a voice?
3. Pension and Health -- "We'll Fix it in Post" ...This phrase refers to the filmmaking tactic when things aren't going so well on set. The director will say, "We'll fix it in post (production)", meaning..."this isn't quite right, but we're going to move on and fix it in the editing room." That is what they are proposing for the pension and health plans -- to fix it post-merger.
The fact is, this merger plan gives ZERO details about the merger of the pension and health plans. There is a "feasibility study" but it is cursory at best and says pretty much nothing. The committee designing the merger refuses to discuss details of the pension and health plans, such as how much it will cost, what the qualifications will be, how the two very, very different plans will be compromised, etc. There is simply no information. We have to wonder WHY. If they are confident this will be good for actors, why not do a study and come up with some good options? We suspect they know the plans will not merge easily and that it will not be good for performers.
SAG's pension and health plan is running at a deficit and has been hit with multi-million dollar embezzlement issue as well. AFTRA's plan was also hit by the recession and their pension trustees have warned that merging the plans would be a major challenge. While it is true that the unions and the pension plans are separate, there is nothing to stop the unions from investigating and studying the possibilities, especially considering the precarious financial position of the two funds.
4. Pension and Health -- Major Argument for the Merger Isn't Accurate: The merger plan does NOT merge the pension and health plans. The merger plan says that BOTH plans will continue to exist, and earnings will still be applied to both. Therefore, the assumed advantage that actors can combine earnings in order to meet the minimum earnings requirement is just not there. This merger does not allow for that as written.
Note: For those who might not be aware, every time your child works, in addition to their wages, producers also pay additional percentages (about 15-16% depending on the contract) of earnings into the Pension and Health fund, a separate entity from the unions themselves. They don’t pay the union directly, so it isn’t as if they could just send a check to a new union entity. Producers pay INTO the fund indicated on the contract. For the plan to remain healthy (think the public sector situation of Social Security) new contributions are necessary. This is why there are requests for feasibility studies to even determine if the 2 very different plans could EVER be combined, be fair to all parties involved AND still remain financially solvent. It isn’t just those who are drawing pensions now who have this concern, although it’s easy to dismiss this point as being not relevant to kids. Similarly, is the health plan – that is difficult for a child to ever get full benefit from. But your child’s earnings generate funding for these benefits and you should understand that function.
5. Global Rule One -- Union Solidarity Could be Weakened: The foundation and strength of the Screen Actors Guild is Rule One -- the idea that once you join the union you will never do non-union work again. It is so important that it is written on the back of our union membership card. It is the item that makes producers do union projects because they know they can't get the actors they want (the stars) if they don’t work under a union contract. "Unity is Power" is a major selling point of the merger, but does this plan actually support that goal? AFTRA allows their members to work non-union, and they will continue to do so under the new merged union. Well, specifically, SOME members will be allowed to work non-union--broadcasters. Actors will not, but likely will follow the AFTRA culture of working off-the-card. This concerns us because the whole point of merging the unions is to gain strength and this policy severely weakens the union.
6. Increased Costs: The budget for the new union will be both AFTRA's full budget and SAG's full budget. All current SAG and AFTRA staff are guaranteed to keep their jobs (if you would like to have an idea of what they make, click here http://www.unionfacts.com/employees/Screen_Actors. We think you will be shocked). Even beyond that, the merger proposal adds a possible new cost: The ability for BOARD MEMBERS TO BE PAID, and to get assistance with health and pension qualifying. We would have hoped for efficiency and streamlining and this is not reflected in the merger proposal in any way.
7. Less Representation for Kids: There is no mention in the proposal of special interest groups such as background artists, young performers or performers with disabilities. SAG had committees for these specialty groups, and currently child SAG members may serve on committees (and they do). This committee structure, along with their direct vote on contracts and for Board Members are a young performer's only opportunity to be heard in the union. The new merger proposal only details broadcast committees and other standing AFTRA committees. Children are not likely to have a voice but they pay the same dues as adults.
8. New Dues Structure: It is true that dual card holders will only need to pay one set of dues, but it isn't a huge cost savings. People who are members of either SAG OR AFTRA will be paying more. The dues in the new union will be $198 per year plus 1.575% of your earnings. Further, there is an inequity in dues--high earning broadcasters will pay significantly less in dues (and they can work non-union as well!).
9. New Fees and They'll Cash Your Check -- this is a big issue for us, especially considering the accounting problems we already have with Coogan withholding. The new union can now cash your child's check! Right now, SAG simply views your residual check, processes the information and sends it on to you. They don't have the ability to cash the check or withhold any fees from it. AFTRA, on the other hand does. If they *think* you owe them anything, they will cash the check, withhold their money, and send you the difference. Once again, the new union has adopted AFTRA culture and has incorporated not only the ability to cash the check, but they have added the ability to charge administrative and handling fees for sending you the residuals! We’ve seen it suggested that the change in the wording about administrative fees is thinking ahead to someday charging non-union workers who haven’t joined the union, for these services. That’s possible, but the current plan allows fees to be charged to anyone.
10. Conflict of Interest and Pay for Board Members: Right now, SAG Board members volunteer their time, ensuring that they have the best interests of their ACTING career at heart. Under the merger plan, Board members can be paid, they can be given assistance in regard to pension and health, and they can define themselves as a "non-employee" so they can still sit on the Board. In fact, AFTRA's elected President is already drawing a salary. This, in combination with the lack of transparency under a Delaware corporation, suggests to us that there will be a conflict of interest. Will these board members care if they increase health plan qualifying, if they themselves will qualify anyway? Will they care about actors, if their new career is as a politician? Are they even telling us the truth now, or just looking forward to a paycheck and a lifetime of health and pension for themselves?
11. Custom Contracts Will Continue, Without a Vote of the Membership: There is no evidence that the undercutting of Contracts by AFTRA will stop-- most child actors have felt the effects of AFTRA's Uptown Agreements and similar "custom contracts". Kids simply do not make the same income they used to make, when the shows were under SAG's jurisdiction. AFTRA sold us out, plain and simple. The new merged union has several clauses that hint at the ability of the new union to create specialty contracts without a vote if they are "not used in widespread or industry-wide application or affecting a substantial portion of the membership..." In other words, kids' shows. This AFTRA policy has been disastrous for child actors and their earnings, and it seems the new union is planning to continue the practice.
12. No Evidence that a Merger Will Result in Stronger Negotiating: SAG and AFTRA jointly negotiated contracts, successfully, for decades. They don't need to merge to do this. There is no evidence that one union will be stronger against producers. To the contrary, the producers will appreciate the opportunity to negotiate with just one group--especially if it looks like the weaker union, AFTRA.
13. Strike Weakness: The new union will now represent many different jobs, including news editors, and program hosts. Do we really believe that they will agree to a strike on behalf of actor's issues if the time ever comes? The strength of a united union is ONLY In the ability to stop the work product. If we can't get a strike vote in the new union, the producers have effectively "busted" SAG.
14. Background Workers: Many child actors start in the industry by working as background players. This proposal has allowed anyone (literally) to join AFTRA during the voting period. There have been dozens of people joining AFTRA every day, so that they can get grandfathered in to the union. This means that the union background work market will be flooded with newbies who have no credits and no representation.
15. Future Merger Clause: Future mergers (Actor's Equity Association? IATSE--studio teachers and crew?) only have to be voted on by the convention, not the membership. So next time they want to merge, they don't have to ask us. They can simply pass the merger proposal at a meeting. Right now, as evidenced by this very election, they have to get a 60% vote of the general membership to make such a drastic change in the organization.
In summary, this particular merger plan is just not as good as what we have with SAG now...why would SAG members merge in order to get less representation, less benefit and pay more money? If some of the 15 significant changes turn out to be beneficial, will they override the changes that are problematic?
Our last thought is a reminder for those who might anticipate that our unions will always look out for their child members. Yes, we enjoy child protection terms in the contracts that are very good - special considerations for working conditions and hours that are in line with California law. But please keep in mind that the unions do not offer the basic “preference of employment” protection to actors under the age of 18. A producer does not have to explain why they hire a non-union actor under the age of 18 the way they do for adults. There are no fines.. it’s a box on the form. (See the Taft Hartley Form http://www.sag.org/files/sag/documents/TaftHartley_NM_Principal.pdf ). Our children are already a unique subset of the membership. The governance and the right for child actors to have a voice is critical. Parents have fought for years to represent their children within both unions, with only a little recent success. Many guild activities affecting child members have been legislative actions, and we have all seen enough of how that can go if the right voices of experience aren’t in the room.
Remember: this vote is not about whether or not to merge unions. Members of both SAG and AFTRA have already addressed that in previous votes: actors want to merge. Today, we are deciding HOW to merge. Is this plan the right plan? Have realistic questions and concerns been addressed?