Ray Richmond and Anthony D’Alessandro are contributing to Deadline’s SAG Awards coverage
The view of the pending SAG-AFTRA merger on the red carpet before today’s SAG Awards was mixed. Supporters far outnumbered detractors but many were cautious in their enthusiasm and concerned about potential hidden traps in the deal’s fine print. About 10% of the attendees, including SAG president Ken Howard and Alec Baldwin, wore SAG-AFTRA One Union lapel pins (photo below).
Leading the support was Meryl Streep, who replied, “The merger? I’m in favor of it.” Added Kenneth Branagh: “I do think that the whole debate has been very passionate. My feeling has been, as a 20-year guild member and as a member of AFTRA, to observe that the people are trying to protect the rights of actors and those who work in our business. So that ultimately is the end here. Democracy has to be at work here. People have to take their own view on it. And this has to be very rigorously scrutinized and it will be.” Noted industry veteran Carl Reiner: “I think it’s a good idea. Actors should get together and talk about what they need, and work together as one. Might as well merge ‘em.”
Another vet, Quantum Leap star Scott Bakula also threw his support behind the merger but added words of caution. “I’m in favor of all of the actors getting together and working together. And I’m very excited that both sides of the membership will get a look at something and then it’s in the members’ hands,” he said. “I have many concerns. Nothing’s perfect. We’re talking about combining two huge unions together. So not everyone’s gonna be happy. There will be people who are gonna be disappointed. But we’ve got to figure out a way to make this thing work. Not sure how I’ll vote. I have to see how this whole thing plays out.”
Jonathan Banks, a regular on AMC’s Breaking Bad, sounded a more negative tone. “The merger? I’m against it,” Banks said. “My Screen Actors Guild union has been very good to me for a long time. I think it’s a strong union. My guess is we’ll merge, and I will be a very excited participant if that happens. But for myself I’m gonna stay SAG till the day I die.”
Banks’ Breaking Bad co-star Dean Norris also expressed reservations. “I’m for the merger,” he said. “But I have concerns. Lots of them. How are they going to do the pension, how are they going to do the health care? But ultimately, divided we fall, because all of the pilots the year before went to AFTRA. I didn’t join AFTRA until last year because I didn’t have to. I have concerns, but I don’t see any other way to move ahead…What we need to do is fix the SAG stuff and move ‘em to AFTRA.”
Christopher Grove, a SAG member since 1985, raised questions that are on the minds of many SAG and AFTRA members. “In theory, I have always been for one actor’s union,” he said. “Giving management two unions to negotiate with for the same work has increasingly put us in a weakened position in the digital age. However, the devil will be in the details. What happens to the payment and residuals structure? And, most importantly, what happens to the health and pension plans? Asking members to approve a merger before they know important details with respect to the pension and health plans is no different than asking someone to sign a contract to buy a house before you tell them the price.”
SAG president Ken Howard moved in to quell some of those concerns. “(We) have a fudiciary responsibility as a group, and individually, to protect pensions and heath and also pension funds,” he said. “All vested pension funds are protected by financial law. With regard to the health benefits, we have an even stronger position and we will as a merged union…We’re going to do the best that we can and try to protect actors. But we are so much stronger as the labor side of this board of trustees if we’re merged in what is always an ongoing argument.”
Jeffrey Hutchinson, a member of both SAG and AFTRA since ’84, believes that “once the last merger negotiations went south, AFTRA broke ranks and stole all of the TV shows that used to be SAG, making it virtually impossible for someone like me to qualify for health insurance. To my mind, it makes no sense to do the exact same work as an actor in an episodic TV series and not work for the same union. It’s absolutely ridiculous. That’s why I’m voting for the merger.” Hutchinson added that the “doom and gloom people” who are opposed to the merger remind him of Republicans. “It’s like, ‘No! No! Keep everything exactly the way it is or the sky is falling!’,” he said. “It’s all just based on fear. Personally, I’ve wanted this for a really long time.”
Longtime SAG and AFTRA David Dean Bottrell expressed that he’s “extremely happy” with the pending merged union and figures it was “inevitable” given how “AFTRA already has taken over TV,” Bottrell said, “I have no idea why any producer would start a TV series with a SAG contract now when they can produce it so much more cheaply with AFTRA. All of the shows left with SAG contracts will probably be canceled soon, anyway.” From Bottrell’s perspective, paying two sets of union dues has come to make less and less sense. “I had a big year in 2009, but I discovered that I didn’t have enough earnings under either SAG or AFTRA to qualify for health insurance. Here I am, a successful, working professional actor, and I couldn’t get benefits. So for the rank-and-file actors, the way I see it, we have no choice but to merge the two unions.” Bottrell added that it wasn’t so long ago that SAG and AFTRA were in “the incredibly embarrassing position of negotiating against each other. And it isn’t like we’re really talking separate groups of people. The majority of the members of one union already belong to the other.”
Chimed in Kate Flannery from The Office: “I am for the merger. I think it’s a great idea. The world has changed, and we have to change with it. Do I have concerns about it? I really don’t.” Mayim Bialik, co-star of The Big Bang Theory, echoed her sentiment. “I think I am for the merger,” she said. “I think our life is going to be easier if it happens. I have a lot of concerns. Anytime you combine two big things and put them together there’s the potential for a lot of problems. But I think it will be much simpler overall.”
Later on the show, Howard used his speech to talk up the proposed merger, which he called a “historic moment of unity.” “As one union SAG-AFTRA will support a future of great entertainment for all of us,” he said.