Whither the future of SAG and AFTRA benefit plans?

The late Fred Wilhelms, a strong supporter of the merger of the union he once served, AFTRA, with SAG, and someone with many years of experience with employee benefit plans summed up his analysis of the future of the SAG and AFTRA benefit plans like this in 2011:

This is what we know:

The SAG and AFTRA benefit plans can merge.

Merger of the plans is not part of the merger of the unions, but will be a separate process conducted by the plan Trustees, who have a fiduciary duty to promote the best interests of the plan participants,

The structure of the plans, including the determination of eligibility and benefits will be up to the Trustees, and cannot be predicted at this time, although we know that the present value of pension credits earned under the existing plans cannot be diminished through merger.

It will probably take a year until the post-merger health plan is fully functional, and a year and a half until the same can be said about the pension plan.

(Emphasis added.)

It has, of course, already been more than a year since merger and there is little public indication that the benefit plans are on track to meet such a potential goal set forth by Mr. Wilhelms.

Why not? That, too, is not being discussed publicly. Apparently the “journalists” who are tasked by the major industry media that cover the film and TV business are content to wait until the leadership of the union or the studios hands them a story. Yet, it is almost certain that for most members of the now merged SAG-AFTRA the hope, the dream, of merged benefit plans was a huge motivation for supporting the merger.

In fact, the Hollywood Reporter’s Jonathan Handel wrote just a few months ago:

“Reducing and ultimately eliminating the split earnings problem [created by two separate benefit plans] was cited as a key benefit of the merger, which overwhelmingly passed on March 31 last year. Hence the heightened urgency: absent reciprocity, merger opponents will have a powerful plank on which to base their campaign.

“And absent reciprocity, those of the current leadership who decide to run in this year’s elections would have to fall back on pointing out that — as required by federal labor law — the SAG and AFTRA pension and health plans are legally separate from the unions, and are governed by a board of trustees consisting of equal numbers of union and management representatives, making it impossible for union leadership to unilaterally drive the process.”

Of course, a quick perusal of the bulletin boards indicates that the pro-merger wing of the union is doing precisely that. It is almost as if Handel were writing their talking points.

I will only raise again the two questions I posed a few days ago:

1) is the fact that the two “merged at the hip” union leaders who led the union merger – Ken Howard and Roberta Reardon – have now broken their alliance linked to the rumored possibility of weaker financials for AFTRA than was discovered by SAG prior to approving the merger?


2) is that, in turn, causing the trustees of the benefit funds to hold off on resolving the complex issues that are part of the merger process?

Instead of direct, transparent and accountable answers to these straightforward concerns from SAG-AFTRA staff and elected leaders, merger defenders are now on the defensive in the face of the latest concern about the plans: that any actual merger will only occur as a result of additional bargaining in the upcoming 2014 contract talks. But that too was not the kind of uncertainty that SAG and AFTRA members thought they were voting for.

And adding insult to injury, SAG-AFTRA leaders have let this debate needlessly fester on bulletin boards and Facebook and in the “mainstream” media.

Oh, and one more thing, despite having years to prepare for a post-merger world, the SAG-AFTRA staff and leadership is so ill prepared, apparently, that they have delayed contract talks another year when they could have started this year as they have in the past.

Who knows, a year from now, there might not be a SAG-AFTRA after all.