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AFTRA, SAG Vote Leaves Members Wondering

The failure of the proposed merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists earlier this month especially rankled AFTRA, and now its members are asking: What's next?

"When I first heard the results," says WRC-TV Washington newsman Joe Krebs of the defeat of a merger, "I was surprised and extremely disappointed."

Nationwide, AFTRA members, which include news personalities and disc jockeys in major markets, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the merger, with 75.88% of voters approving. At SAG, a majority voted in favor. However, for the merger to succeed, 60% of the voters in each union had to vote to merge, but only 58.88% of SAG members said yes.

Considering the vote, Krebs, president of the Washington/Baltimore Local of AFTRA, said, "So be it. And good riddance."

His mixed feelings match the mix of possibilities and opportunities facing the two unions' majority who voted to combine. Leadership at both cite the vote as a mandate by clear majorities toward increasingly joining forces and are already hinting, sources say, of another vote.

At AFTRA, though, the enthusiasm toward merger is at least somewhat offset by burnout from coming so close to meeting the goal—and committing resources to organizing, campaigning and voting—but not quite winning.

"It's expensive," says NPR Morning Edition
host Bob Edwards, an AFTRA national vice president. "Meetings, campaigns … they drain our resources. This was nine months of work."

And while another vote is clearly on the minds of AFTRA members, led by its president, John P. Connolly, sources indicate that the union is not likely to commit any time soon to another campaign unless SAG first demonstrates a tangible and binding commitment toward merger. Then, sources say, an AFTRA vote would seal the deal.

Although current leadership is likely to keep the merger on the table, a changed SAG leadership might not. Actress Valerie Harper, who has been defeated twice for SAG president, will sit out the next election, but Kent McCord and running mate Esai Morales will challenge SAG President and leading merger proponent Melissa Gilbert and actor James Cromwell, a board member who will run for secretary-treasurer. Like Harper, McCord and Morales opposed the merger.

Meanwhile, the unions will go forward together in representing actors in commercials over the next several weeks. The last negotiation between the two sides in 2000 included a six-month strike before an agreement was reached.

A glamorous but nonetheless grassroots coalition that included actors Harper, Elliott Gould, Frances Fisher, McCord and Morales and called itself "SaveSAG" won enough of the SAG electorate to derail the merger. Opponents feared that a new union, tentatively titled the Alliance of International Media Artists, would cost members their autonomy.

Proponents of consolidation cite the emergence of digital technology, and they fear that studios and other employers of actors will play one union against the other on jurisdictional issues.

Says Edwards, "Digital is now the great battlefield. And in the long run, one of these unions is not going to survive."