- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

Elliott Gould, Charlton Heston, Donald Sutherland and Jennifer Jason Leigh say “nay,” Richard Dreyfuss, Gregory Peck, Billy Crystal and Meryl Streep say “yea.”

They are among the 178,000 actors — both famous and obscure — on both sides of a possible merger of the American Federation of TV-Radio Actors and the Screen Actors Guild unions.

It’s a complex and touchy script, indeed.

Ballots were mailed today to members of the two AFL/CIO unions, which represent screen stars, announcers, jingle singers, dancers, radio deejays, stuntmen, recording stars, news anchormen and other denizens of the performing universe.

SAG, AFTRA and AFL/CIO officials said they hope the two unions will combine forces and emerge as the “Alliance of International Media Artists,” primarily to present a united front before megamedia companies like Viacom and AOL/Time Warner, which controls much of the marketplace.

SAG president Melissa Gilbert has called on her fellow actors to “match strength with strength” by approving the consolidation, particularly in light of the FCC’s recent relaxation of media ownership rules. She said she wants “clout,” noting there were 29 entertainment companies two decades ago; now there are six.

“It’s absurd to go to the bargaining table and not show your strength,” observed AFTRA national treasurer Mitchell McGuire, who said he was speaking as an actor, not an official.

“A stronger performers union could help get legislation passed to reverse the FCC ruling,” SAG spokesman Ilyanne Morden-Kichaven said, adding the big union could also push for new tax breaks for American film production companies, prompting them to keep their business in the United States.

Some beg to differ, loudly, and with great feeling.

“This union has been run by and for actors. The proposed merger would create a bloated and inefficient organization run by professional managers out of touch with the unique wants and needs of performers,” said actor Kent McCord, spokesman for “Save SAG/Save AFTRA,” a feisty group of renegades who want to keep their AFL/CIO ties — but as two unions.

“SAG represents the most visible people in the world. We’d become nothing more than some committee, making recommendations,” said the former star of “Adam-12,” a popular cop show on TV from 1968-75. He is SAG’s national treasurer, and has served on the union’s board of directors for more than three decades.

Mr. McCord and hundreds of supporters — who include James Farentino, Ed Asner, Steve Buscemi, Suzanne Somers and Valerie Harper — are convinced the merger would offer actors no increase in bargaining power, higher dues and a potential loss of benefits and unfair competition between various actors’ disciplines.

It would just create a bigger union, and a “feudal” one that will cost the performers their power, financial reward and identity.

“This is the 15th time they’ve tried a merger since 1939,” Mr. McCord said. “As my old friend Jack Webb used to say, when the sixth person tells a drunk to lie down, then the drunk should lie down.”

The break-off group protested outside SAG’s Hollywood headquarter’s last week, bearing signs which read: “Merge: Same pig, different lipstick” and “Vote No.” On Saturday, they hosted a second rally, this time in New York’s Central Park.

The thousands of actors who must decide the fate of their union have three weeks to get their ballots in.

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