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Thousands of actors - from A-List megastars to those who work for “scale” - will soon decide whether to merge the nation’s two largest performer unions.

Combining the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists with the Screen Actors Guild was narrowly rejected by members in 2003.  But now AFTRA and SAG leaders appear well on their way to getting the necessary 60 percent vote from each organization.

About 40,000 performers already hold cards from both unions (many also belong to Actors Equity for their work on stage).

Ongoing talks between AFTRA and SAG and special membership meetings around the country have been taking place for more than a year. This week, both sides will huddle in Hollywood to knock out the final proposal.

The merger failed eight years ago by less than three percent of the SAG vote.  Opposition by some high-profile members - including political opposites Ed Asner and Charlton Heston - likely made the difference.

Since then, AFTRA has picked up a growing share of network and cable programming, prompting most SAG hold-outs to drop their opposition. (SAG holds exclusive rights to feature film, while AFTRA’s membership includes broadcast journalists, radio talk show hosts and other on-air performers).

The unions have worked very hard to reach out to all segments of their membership including background performers (“extras”).

The key issue, of course, is power.

Actors will have more leverage with producers and studios if they bargain as one entity.

But once approved, a unified actors union must then take on another major challenge:

Combining their health and pension plans.

And that requires working closely with employers who jointly administer those plans with the unions.

Finally, the new union becomes a bigger affiliate within the AFL-CIO.

It’s very helpful to have actors as a recognizable part of the Labor Movement.  In Los Angeles, for example, unionized performers and other workers from the Hollywood crafts are an important part of the region’s progressive coalition.

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