SAG’s Unite For Strength Waffles on Merger with AFTRA Despite Landslide Victory

SAG Watch, the website run by an anonymous group of SAG moderates, is reporting that Ned Vaughn, the leader of the Unite for Strength faction inside SAG is backing off on a pledge to push hard for merger with AFTRA in the wake of the recent landslide ratification vote.

Instead Vaughn is calling for a more modest shift – a return to so-called Phase One bargaining. Merger is only something to be “looked into” Vaughn said while a return to Phase One is a certainty. Phase One was put in place 25 years ago by SAG and AFTRA as a prelude, in theory, to Phase Two which was supposed to be merger. The two unions share some 40,000 members. AFTRA overall has 70,000 members and SAG has 110,000. A merger would, in essence, mean adding the 30,000 non-SAG members in AFTRA to the new entity.

Phase One put in place a joint bargaining process which allowed AFTRA greater voting weight, in essence, during contract talks. SAG hardliners like current President Alan Rosenberg and First Vice President Anne-Marie Johnson are bitter opponents of merger because they fear that the new members would limit the ability of SAG to engage in tougher bargaining tactics. They also oppose Phase One and helped engineer a break up of the arrangement during the recent contract talks.

Proponents of merger argue that a larger union could have greater leverage with the studios. But the logical conclusion of that perspective would mean merger as well with other industry guilds such as the IATSE. Indeed, AFTRA and IATSE have set up a closer strategic relationship in the last year and the AFL-CIO’s Department of Public Employees has made some efforts to bring the various guilds together to devise common strategy. Such efforts have yet to produce anything of value to the industry’s guilds.

The odd thing about the Vaughn comments, made in an interview last evening on Film Nut, are that Vaughn and others campaigned to gain control of the SAG National Board with the explicit goal of merging with AFTRA. In the wake of the overwhelming victory achieved by UFS in the contract ratification vote (see my post below “And the envelope please…”) it was widely expected that UFS would see this as a mandate for their fall election campaign for the SAG presidency that would in turn lead to merger talks with AFTRA.

However, UFS has never made clear why merger would change the power dynamic with the studios. Certainly merger could result in some cost savings since staff could be streamlined but beyond that UFS has not explained its strategy clearly. The Vaughan comments may reflect indecision among the UFS leadership and will likely be pounced upon by their hardline opponents in the Membership First group which is in need of anything to grab onto in light of their embarrassing defeat in the contract vote.

Vaughn also dodged questions about why the Guilds have failed so miserably in attacking DVD revenue which remains the 600 pound gorilla in the room. New media accounts for only 1% of the revenue accruing to studios relative to DVD yet the Guilds were unable to put together a coherent campaign to impact that revenue stream which results in a windfall to the studios so lopsided that even Wall Street analysts call it “unfair.”

In my view, the reason that Membership First screamed bloody murder about the current contract’s proposed new media terms – only marginally worse than what they had offered to accept – was to hide the fact that they had no intention of going after DVD revenue. It appears Vaughn has no intention of doing so either. Yet, it may be a decade before new media comes anywhere close to the revenue generation that comes from DVD.