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SAG and AFTRA join together but still have to work out a merged health plan

Union members erupt in applause after the overwhelming vote to merge the SAG and AFTRA unions was announced.
Union members erupt in applause after the overwhelming vote to merge the SAG and AFTRA unions was announced.

The newly-merged union of actors and broadcasters, SAG-AFTRA, is up-and-running in its first week as a united force.

The union is getting all the props in place: new stationery, new logo, merged office space. Then, consolidating the staff of two unions into one. All of it is in preparation for the first big show coming this fall: The mammoth union, about 150,000 members strong, will be in talks for its commercials contract.

Stephen Collins has been on the national board of the Screen Actors Guild. He said negotiating as one union instead of two pitted against each other will make all the difference at the bargaining table.

"The producers and employers will not be able to say, 'We'll offer the SAG people this and we'll offer the AFTRA people this and we'll let them race to the bottom,'" said Collins. "Now they can't do that."

But with loads of leverage comes loads of challenges. At long last, SAG-AFTRA needs to decide how to meld their health plans — something that has been a sticking point for both unions since the possibility of a merger was announced.

Health care and pension benefits are big issues for actors, who freelance from one project to the next. The vast majority of actors tend to get small jobs, like a guest-starring role, a commercial or a voiceover spot.

“You have an actor who works three or four guest shots on an AFTRA TV show and three or four guest shots on a SAG TV show and fails to make the health plan in either union," according to Collins.

Collins said that frustration is one reason so many members approved the merger.

“When you work in front of a screen — whether it’s a TV screen, a movie screen or a computer screen — a contribution should be made to one health plan," said Collins.

Trustees of the health and pension plans still have to figure out how actors will qualify for benefits and how much they will have to pay.