By RYAN NAKASHIMA, Associated Press
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The nation's two actors unions have merged, nearly a decade after their last attempt, bringing an end to years of conflict that had given Hollywood studios the advantage in labor negotiations.
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, the smaller of the two, had tried to merge with the Screen Actors Guild in 1998 and 2003.
Among AFTRA members, 86 percent approved the merger, while 82 percent of SAG members voted in favor.
"In a single day, our future has become brighter," said Ken Howard. The merger made him co-president of the new union, called SAG-AFTRA.
Roberta Reardon, the other co-president, echoed those remarks. "Finally, we are able to speak with one truly unified voice."
The decision to negotiate the prime-time TV and movie contracts separately in 2008 and 2009 caused a rift that allowed the studios to play the unions off each other. That strategic mistake led SAG members to bring in new leaders, who made merging a top priority.
Reardon, who led AFTRA to sign its contract a year earlier than SAG in that round of talks, said Friday's outcome was the best possible from a difficult time.
"We managed to make lemonade out of lemons," she said.
The combined union now has more than 150,000 members. SAG had about 125,000, while AFTRA had about 70,000. About 45,000 actors belonged to both unions and paid dues to both.
In materials supporting the merger, the unions said basic dues would go down for dual card-holders by 20 percent, while they would rise for actors who belonged to just one of the unions.
The combined union aims to keep revenue about $100 million the first year but expects to see savings in subsequent years.
SAG, founded in 1933, and AFTRA, begun in 1952, were created to handle different media. SAG was the union for motion picture work, while AFTRA handled radio and TV. Those distinctions eventually blurred and they became even less important with the rise of cable TV and then the Internet.
Together, the unions can negotiate with Hollywood studios from a position of greater strength. One area of focus is shows that air on pay-TV networks, which are employing increasing numbers of actors in scripted projects, such as "Mad Men" on AMC.
A handful of networks continue to hire non-union talent, including ESPN, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, Fox Sports and Discovery, and the unions are looking to organize those performers.
The unions expect to exercise their joint heft in negotiations on a commercials contract that expires in October. The next prime-time TV and movie contract is up in 2014.
The merger also makes the unions financially stronger. SAG-AFTRA aims to build a reserve fund to enable members to strike for six months if necessary.
The studios' bargaining arm, the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which exploited the groups' rift several years ago, acknowledged the merger in a statement.
"The AMPTP looks forward to a cooperative relationship with the new performers' organization as we endeavor to address the challenges of operating in an industry undergoing transformation," it said.
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