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Endorse the Endorsers: Talking Up a SAG-AFTRA Merger

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The board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild’s sexily named Regional Branch Division got together in Washington, D.C., over the weekend. In between all the trust-building exercises and keg stands, the regional leaders found time to officially “endorse the creation of one union to cover all performers.” In a statement from the guild, SAG president Ken Howard endorsed the endorsement. “I’m pleased they so strongly endorsed the idea of one union for all performers,” Howard said. No word yet on whether anyone has endorsed Howard’s endorsement of the endorsement, but said endorsement is no doubt forthcoming. Endorsement, endorsement, endorsement.

The E word isn’t in short supply in the guild’s announcement. The sharp reader—or even the sort-of-tipsy, somewhat distracted one—will also notice the repeated variations on “one union” for “all performers.” What’s absent from the release is any mention of the words “merger” or “AFTRA.”

Another shot at uniting AFTRA and SAG became a possibility when Howard won the SAG presidency in October. It became, if not inevitable, then far less evitable than before when, last month, AFTRA’s leaders issued an open letter to their members endorsing (there’s that word again) “one media and entertainment union for all actors, performers, and broadcast journalists.” The AFTRA letter did mention SAG by name—three times in a 1,719-word document. The word “merger” popped up several times more, each time framed by quotation marks.

It’s clear that pro-merger AFTRA and SAG leaders are being careful about their messaging. “Merger” is something that failed to happen in 1960, 1999, and 2003. “One union for all performers” is something that sounds, well, a lot better than failure.

“ ‘Merger’ is not a word I like to bandy about,” said Holter Graham, president of AFTRA’s New York local. “Frankly, ‘merger’ has a 19-year connotation to almost anyone who’s heard it. I believe in the blank slate. I believe in the hybrid vigor of taking the best pieces of things and moving forward, so I’m not going to use words that are behind me.”

But the messaging being used by Graham and others also appears to reflect a shift in aspirations. AFTRA president Roberta Reardon told Back Stage in February that she understands merger “as a New York actor…. In New York, if you made a living as an actor, then you necessarily worked in all three unions”—meaning SAG, AFTRA, and Actors’ Equity Association. When asked if a “single union for all performers” could also cover stage performers, Graham said, “We look in America’s face and we tell America its stories. To me, if you do that in any way, shape, or form, you qualify.”

More and more, merger’s proponents are making the process sound not like a means to an end, but a means to a beginning. It looks like SAG’s regional board has endorsed that message.

Pictured: SAG President Ken Howard (Photo: Getty Images)

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