Pension, health benefits may be linchpin in SAG/AFTRA merger vote

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Ballots are due March 30 on the plan to merge the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of TV and Radio Artists. The two unions share a headquarters building, a credit union, and more than 40,000 actors and entertainers who carry both cards. But SAG and AFTRA also operate separate pension and health plans. That’s a key factor in how the merger vote will turn out.

Maybe you’ve seen actor Misi Lopez Lecube in a couple of episodes of “Sex and the City” or “The Comeback.” Or maybe you’ve heard her doing promos for Playboy TV or Nickelodeon.

“On the next ‘Sponge Bob Squarepants’... to 'On the next ‘Avatar...’” Lecube puts on her elegant narrator's voice with ease.

Lecube is a member of both SAG and AFTRA, although acting alone doesn’t pay all her bills. The unions operate separate pension and health plans – and if she can work enough, she qualifies for one or the other. She remembers what that's like.

"You get your health, you get your checkup, you get your this, you get your that. You get everything done because it’s such a gift to be able to take care of yourself and it really kind of shouldn’t be," says Lecube, who's in her late 30s.

But health coverage is a gift for many actors, although for Lecube, the gift lasted only one year. To qualify for health coverage from SAG or AFTRA, members must earn enough money under contracts by that union during that year. Seven years ago, Misi Lopez Lecube had just enough SAG income and just enough AFTRA income to qualify for health coverage from both unions.

"So, I went with SAG," Lecube remembers. "I researched and I went with SAG because the plan was better. It just had better coverage for me so I just went with that."

But the following year, her earnings fell off, and she didn’t qualify for coverage from either union.

"Had the two been, I think, combined at that point, I probably would have made the mark and been able to have my insurance for the year 2007 as well as 2006," Lecube figures. "But I didn’t, so I lost my insurance."

If SAG and AFTRA merge to form one union, their goal would be to combine their benefits plans. It’s one of the bread-and-butter issues for merger advocates.

"Since 2003, when the merger did not happen, our medical insurance premiums have gone up, co-pays have gone up, deductibles have gone up," SAG’s first Vice President Ned Vaughn told KPCC’s AirTalk.

"Meanwhile, our work is divided more than ever, the qualifying levels have gone up more than ever. Makes it virtually impossible for middle class actors to earn benefits in either plan," Vaughn said. "All of this can be solved if we merge these unions."

And actors like Misi Lopez Lecube would struggle less to hit their marks.

But opponents of the merger would also point to Lecube’s situation to support their argument. Remember: the one year she had a choice between the two unions' plans, which one did she pick? The SAG plan, she said, because it was better.

That’s no surprise to Anne Marie Johnson. She’s one of the few SAG board members against the merger. She matched wits with Ned Vaughn on AirTalk.

"We have experts that have stated on record and that have provided sworn declarations that any proposed merger of our plan, the SAG plan, which is a very healthy superior plan to AFTRA’s more inferior plan would cause a negative impact on our members," Johnson explained. "That’s very important and our members need to know that."

Johnson is one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the merger. It argues that SAG’s board is breaching its fiduciary duty by failing to conduct a proper study of the merger’s effects on the pension and health plans.

Unless a judge halts the vote, the fate of the merger lies with rank-and-file members like Misi Lopez Lecube.

"See, I just feel like everybody’s holding on a little too tight," Lecube says. " I get the fear of maybe losing out a little of what you have but at the same time, like, there’s how we don’t grow."

As a member of both unions, she figures they’d do better as just one. As for the debate over health and pension benefits…

“That’s exactly like what happens, I feel personally, in this country," she says. "It’s like everybody wants what they want and they want to hold onto exactly the way they have it and ‘Oh my gosh! If it changes, I’m gonna lose out!’ Really? I feel like: let’s look at the bigger picture. Let’s look at the future. Let’s look at people coming up and into these unions because, I think, that’s what’s important.”

For the merger to pass, 60 percent of the members of AFTRA and SAG must vote in favor.


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