SAG-AFTRA’s Roberta Reardon Guest Speaks at SMLR, Discusses Recent Merger of Unions for Media Professionals

Hollywood history was made on March 30, 2012, as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) successfully merged to form a single union of media professionals called SAG-AFTRA.

On April 10, Roberta Reardon, former president of AFTRA and current co-president of SAG-AFTRA, spoke with SMLR’s faculty and Ph.D. students at Rutgers’ Labor Education Center. Reardon and SMRL Acting Dean Sue Schurman shared details of the successful SAG-AFTRA merger process, while recounting the several previous merger attempts that took place over the decades.

“One of the surprising things we found out is that even though so many of us have been members of both unions for so many years, we didn’t know each other,” says Reardon, regarding the differences between SAG and AFTRA as organizations.

Roberta Reardon
Roberta Reardon, co-president of SAG-AFTRA, speaks with SMLR's faculty and Ph.D. students.

The two unions each represented different types of work and had different cultures. SAG was the well-known Hollywood brand with popular movie stars, and AFTRA was traditionally known as a union for radio artists.

According to Reardon, there were many heated conflicts between the two unions over the years, but the merger was essential for creating a stronger bargaining unit. Through SAG-AFTRA, media professionals have a solid negotiating platform for wages, benefits, and working conditions. Performers who once belonged to both, separate groups will avoid splitting their wages and health coverage between the two unions. In addition, they will have greater opportunities for residuals and ownership of copyright usage. 

Professor Schurman, who served as the lead facilitator of the merger process, described details of her initial meeting with SAG and AFTRA’s boards in 2010. At that time, she requested each unit’s mission statement to gain insight into their individual goals. “Immediately, at a glance, I knew these were two very different ways of organizing,” says Professor Schurman.

The SAG-AFTRA campaign’s leadership team adopted an approach to creating a new union using a version of “interest-based negotiating” that involved building a shared mission and an organizational strategy linked to the changes in the entertainment and media industry. The approach also emphasized actively engaging union members.

 “We needed our members’ involvement at a grassroots level. We realized that they needed to get involved in the process,” says Reardon.  

The SAG-AFTRA campaign team organized a listening tour in which 22 meetings were held in 32 cities across the country, including Boston, Detroit, and Chicago. Six committees were created, and a social media campaign was created to increase their outreach strength.  

Reardon told the group, “It was like creating the constitution from scratch.”

The merger of SAG-AFTRA was approved by more than 80% of the members in each union, bringing together a diverse array of media professionals. This includes actors, journalists, recording artists, and DJs.