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Hollywood Unions Ratify Merger to Bolster Clout With Studios

Hollywood’s largest actors unions agreed to merge, creating a single organization that will have greater bargaining power with movie and television studios.

Members of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists approved the plan supported by George Clooney and Alec Baldwin, with 82 percent of SAG and 86 percent of AFTRA members voting in favor, the union said today in a statement.

The combined organization, with more than 150,000 members, will have the clout to negotiate for better pay, pension and health benefits, and navigate the impact of changes to distribution, SAG-AFTRA officials said. A 2009 strike by the Screen Actors Guild was weakened when AFTRA members remained on the job because their contract expired on a different date.

“The members are aware that the business models of their employers are changing pretty dramatically,” Steve Diamond, a Santa Clara University labor law professor who follows the Hollywood unions, said in an interview before the results were announced. “So there’s a defensive posture that has taken hold.”

The merger campaign began during the strike after SAG dissidents criticized union leaders for failing to reach an agreement with the studios. After negotiations broke down, the pro-merger group Unite for Strength won seats on the national board by calling for a combination of the two unions. The discussions with AFTRA began after the strike ended in April 2009.

Two Years of Work

The vote was the culmination of two years of work, SAG-AFTRA National Co-President Roberta Reardon said at a press conference in Los Angeles.

“In a single day our future has become bright,” SAG-AFTRA National Co-President Ken Howard said. “Together we finally stand as one.”

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, the entity that negotiates on behalf of studios, including News Corp.’s Twentieth Century Fox and Viacom Inc.’s Paramount Pictures, said in a statement that the group “looks forward to working with the new performers’ organization.”

Issues facing the actors have changed with the growth in digital distribution of films and TV shows. Union members want to make sure residual payments, money they get each time a movie is sold or rented, will continue as new platforms are developed, Diamond said. Actors’ negotiators made little headway on the issue in 2009, he said.

“In the next contract round you can expect a conflict over residuals,” he said. “The question is whether they will have a strategy in place to put it back on the table.”

The Screen Actors Guild represents about 120,000 film and television actors, while AFTRA has about 70,000 members, including actors as well as on-air TV news anchors and reporters and radio announcers.

About 45,000 actors already belong to both unions, according to Pam Greenwalt, a spokeswoman for the merged unions who previously represented SAG.

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