SAG-AFTRA on split earnings: never mind?

Without question the “split earnings” problem was a key factor in the large vote for merger of SAG and AFTRA a little more than a year ago.

One leading NY-based merger advocate wrote frequent comments then and later making this clear. For example, this actor called “split earnings” one of the “concerns that are leading to merger.” And predicted that “there will be sufficient reciprocity in place between P&H and H&R by this time next year – sufficient to virtually end the dilemma of “split earnings” for actors who work under different legacy contracts.” (Bold in original.) He also stated that “merger can force cooperation between the plans.” And that, “union merger would provide a realistic opportunity for the trustees of the current plans to quickly provide that earnings under both plans could be combined for purposes of establishing eligibility in a plan.” (Bold in original.) He also proposed that “cooperative reciprocity” between the pension plans “can alleviate the dilemma of ‘split earnings’.”

And even more recently this same person wrote: “Without merger there is no practical strategy to avoid a members’ earnings being split between the plans.”

(Of course this claim was not true – a reorganization of SAG and AFTRA members into unions that made sense – for example, all performers into SAG and broadcasters into CWA – would have also been a solution and one that made strategic sense from a bargaining perspective, to boot. The larger problem was that SAG lost the war inside the AFL-CIO and without the backing of key AFL officials had no chance in the battle with AFTRA. I made this point to the SAG leadership in 2006, in response to a question from the NED search committee. Unfortunately, inside the SAG Membership First party there remains a hostility to, or misunderstanding of, the wider labor movement that hinders them to this day.)

And in response to a long analysis of the proposed merger by the Hollywood Reporter during the heat of the campaign over merger this same leading SAG figure concluded the article was a “clear, concise and quite accurate accounting of a very thorny time in our history. Kudos to Mr. Handel.” And when challenged again lauded the Handel piece as a “balanced, accurate article.”

What did Mr. Handel write with respect to “split earnings”? I quote here the relevant parts:

In addition, with television work more heavily tilted towards AFTRA while feature work remained under SAG jurisdiction, actors more frequently experienced a “split earnings” problem: with wages divided between two unions, actors can find themselves falling short of both unions’ qualifying thresholds for pension and/or health coverage even if they would have qualified had all work been under a single umbrella. The problem had existed pre-2009, but it appears to have become even more prevalent as AFTRA gained more television jurisdiction.

Advocates for merger say their case is strong: elimination of overlapping jurisdiction in television (and, now, in new media), elimination of the split earnings problem, possible increases in operating efficiency and a decrease in the sort of open warfare that advantages only the studios.

Conclusion

So – again – how did merger come to be front and center today? Credit not only the advocates, but also MembershipFirst. Under their watch – and despite their intentions – the events of 2007-2008 weakened SAG, strengthened AFTRA, accentuated the split earnings problem, allowed the studios to play one union off against the other, and led SAG members to reject intra- and inter-union battles and seek merger instead.

In other words, the split earnings problem, exacerbated by the competition that AFTRA engendered when it was miraculously awarded the lion’s share of cable pilots in the years leading up to the merger vote, was at the heart of the merger campaign. The much more vague claim made by merger advocates about increased bargaining power played an important role as well but was not nearly as crucial to the merger effort, as the words of merger advocates themselves make clear.

Yet now that the merger of the unions has not led to the merger of the pension and health care plans, as predicted by merger advocates, and the split earnings problem persists, merger advocates seem to be under pressure to bury their history.

Thus, the same individual I quoted above has now stated:

“‘Ending split earnings’ was NOT the main reason for voting in favor of merger. The main reason for merger was to have ALL performers’ contracts be under ONE UNION and eliminate jurisdictional competition in negotiations, organizing, and administration of contracts.” (All caps in original.)

With national union elections still underway it seems the advocates of merger are very much on the defensive. So far, merger has not created singular advantages for the union membership.