Actress Files Class Action Against SAG-AFTRA For Undisclosed Benefit Cuts

For decades, many Hollywood actors and actresses have battled the industry to assert their rights and defend themselves from exploitation. In December of 2020, actor Ed Asner and nine other members of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) sued the trustees of their union’s health care plan. In August, making similar allegations to those contained in Asner’s suit, actress Frances Fisher, who appeared in the movie “Titanic,” also filed a class-action lawsuit. 

While Asner’s suit alleges wage discrimination, Fisher’s suit alleges that the union deceived members into agreeing to collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that reduced health care benefits for retirees and their families. The case is Frances Fisher v. SAG-AFTRA et al., case number 2:21-cv-05215, in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.

Further, Fisher alleges that the union and negotiators violated their duty of fair representation to the union’s 160,000 members by pressuring them to ratify deals which were later revealed to cause major benefit reductions for certain members. “The benefit cuts effectively eliminated benefits under the SAG-AFTRA Health Plan for thousands of union members and their families … and many members face the dramatically increased hurdles for eligibility under the health plan in the future,” Fisher said.

The lawsuit attacks health plan changes that followed the adoption of three collective bargaining agreements covering performers and technical workers working in TV, theater, commercials, and Netflix. Fisher’s allegations are similar to Asner’s lawsuit which accused SAG and AFTRA of breaching their fiduciary duties under the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (ERISA).

Ratification of the CBAs in question made changes last August to eligibility for the union’s depleted health plan. These changes affected workers and their family members who rely on union pensions and residual pay to qualify for certain benefits. However, Fisher contends that the changes raised the income thresholds for members to qualify, eliminated residual earnings as a factor in eligibility for pensioners, and reduced paths to eligibility for certain senior and veteran members of the union.

Fisher also claims the union knew, but withheld the information, that the agreements would be insufficient to fund benefits for all members who historically qualified. However, the union promoted “transformative gains” for the health plan in postcards urging members to vote to ratify the TV and theatrical CBA last summer. The Netflix and commercial CBAs were previously approved by union leadership without member votes.

Last August, three weeks after member approval, the union disclosed the health plan’s problems. Fisher said that by failing “to disclose the vital information concerning the SAG-AFTRA health plan and accepting subpar contract terms, union leaders breached their duties of fair representation.”

Fisher is seeking to represent a class comprised of all 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members, all with common interests and injuries. The suit includes a National Labor Relations Act duty of fair representation claim, seeks a court order voiding the relevant CBAs, and reverses the benefit changes, among other things.

SAG-AFTRA described the suit as “completely without merit” in a statement it released in response to Fisher’s suit. The union said the health plan is a “completely separate and distinct legal entity” and that the changes were the “result of economic pressures from the pandemic and sustained hyperinflation in the health care sector.” 

“These kinds of decisions are made by the plan and are not within the purview of the SAG-AFTRA union,” the group said.

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