Tearing up the SAG card: how merger with AFTRA could open the door to a non-union Hollywood

When one steps back from the bitter debate now engulfing the Screen Actors Guild over whether to ratify a proposed merger with sister guild AFTRA, it becomes clear that the motivations for the merger are not necessarily linked to the future success of unions in Hollywood.

SAG members have rejected merger in the past, albeit by narrow margins, and many thought the idea off the table for the time being. But the failed collective bargaining strategy implemented by Membership First led to a reaction by a new generation of actors, many based in Los Angeles, long the stronghold of Membership First. Among them were successful actors like Amy Brenneman, Ned Vaughn, Assaf Cohen and Amy Aquino who had become fed up with they saw, not inaccurately, as the mindlessly militant tactics of long time SAG activists such as Alan Rosenberg, Anne-Marie Johnson, David Joliffe and Kent McCord.

That fissure in the Los Angeles arm of SAG led to a new union leadership elected explicitly to execute a merger with AFTRA. But being right about the problem in SAG – that Membership First’s approach did not work – is not the same as being right about the proposed solution, i.e., this merger.

There can of course be good reasons to merge unions, particularly in the entertainment industry: it can lead to the end of dual union dues and unnecessary duplicate expenses associated with union staff and the administration of benefits plans.

These are the kinds of “efficiencies” that have often motivated mergers in the private sector as well as the union and non-profit environment. It turns out, however, that such cost savings are harder to achieve than is often thought when a merger is first dreamed up.

And, in fact, the proposed merger will not dramatically reduce dues, it will not at the outset lead to a cut in union staff and, as I blogged about recently, it will not lead, at least initially and perhaps ever, to a merging of the benefits plans.

In the case of the SAG-AFTRA proposed merger, however, there is a deeper concern, one that goes to the heart of what makes Los Angeles a union town, what makes nearly the entire entertainment industry, from New York to Portland, a unionized industry.

SAG President Alan Rosenberg with Anil Kapoor holding his SAG card

It turns out that the “SAG Card” is the glue so essential to holding that environment together. The SAG Card is the draw for many thousands of aspiring actors around the world because it represents the chance of earning their place in the Guild. And it is this global motivation, as intangible as it may seem, that lies at the hub of unionization in the film and TV industry.

The merger of SAG and AFTRA into a new entity called “SAG-AFTRA” (yes, seriously) means in essence the tearing up of that vaunted SAG card. That is a very dangerous turn of events for the future of unionism in Hollywood.

There is a great deal of confusion among SAG members about the basis of their union’s strength in the entertainment industry. Unlike many unions SAG secures representation of actors through something known as “voluntary recognition.” SAG does not typically try to organize actors via a union election. Even the original recognition of SAG in the late 1930s was a form of “voluntary recognition” as the studios conceded that indeed SAG was the actors’ choice as their collective bargaining agent.

The “voluntary recognition” mechanism is often more attractive to unions because it avoids the time, expense and unpredictability of a union election. And in recent years it avoids the inevitable confrontation with an anti-union campaign by the employer. But to be successful, the union must be able to demonstrate that an uncoerced majority of employees supports the union. Many unions use a system called “card check” to demonstrate that majority support: they collect signed cards from workers that state the workers’ support for the union as their exclusive bargaining agent.

SAG does not actually need to solicit cards or other forms of support. Why? Because it has an even stronger method to demonstrate majority support: the actors that a production company almost inevitably wants to hire are already dues paying members of SAG! There is no clearer form of demonstrating “uncoerced majority support” than that.

In other words, the fact that all, or nearly all, the actors that a production company may want to hire carry a SAG Card is proof of the union support that motivates the production company to voluntarily recognize SAG and therefore to go ahead and sign on to the relevant CBA.

In fact, SAG goes further than this and prepares draft forms of the whole set of documents that a production company needs to execute in order to begin a union production. This is a very important means of controlling the industrial environment in which SAG operates and helps improve SAG’s leverage with new production companies.

Notice, though, that the glue that holds this industrial system together is the SAG Card. It is the willingness of tens of thousands of actors to hold that card, to be dues paying members in good standing even while in between gigs, that gives SAG the leverage to ask for and get “voluntary recognition” by production companies of SAG as the exclusive bargaining agent for the actors on those projects. When an autoworker leaves a job at GM the UAW often loses that union member for life unless they get rehired later by GM. That does not happen, for the most part, to SAG.

What is it that motivates those thousands of actors to hold SAG Cards in good standing?

It is the collective sense that getting a SAG Card is a significant achievement in and of itself, that there needs to be a collective “all for one, one for all” sense of solidarity among actors if they are to be free to concentrate on their craft and their artistry while not sacrificing their rights as workers. Being part of that collective is the contribution that each actor is willing to give in order to gain the opportunity to pursue their careers.

This leads, in turn, to widespread support in SAG for Global Rule One under which principal actors agree not to work on non-SAG productions anywhere in the world. The SAG Constitution says: “No member shall work as a performer or make an agreement to work as a performer for any producer who has not executed a basic minimum agreement with the Guild which is in full force and effect.”

It doesn’t matter if it’s Tom Cruise or a recent unknown graduate of Yale Drama School, SAG members will not act on non-SAG productions. That commitment comes with the winning of a SAG Card. In fact, Global Rule One is printed on the back of the SAG Card!

As SAG itself (still!) says on its website:

“Screen Actors Guild is the most distinguished performer’s union in the world. Our members are experienced professionals who require certain standards of working conditions, compensation and benefits. Membership is often a major milestone in an actor’s career; every SAG card issued symbolizes success and solidarity with a community of 120,000 talented and accomplished artists worldwide.”

(Notoriously, many leading AFTRA members freely work on non-union jobs sometimes for years at a time. AFTRA’s weak support for union solidarity was highlighted recently by the comment of Roberta Reardon, AFTRA President, that she could help SAG members find a way to sneak around picket lines of her own union members.)

If the intangible sense grows that this collective known as SAG is in fact no longer about primarily actors, about protecting their ability to pursue their craft knowing that the union has enough collective power to defend and improve their basic working conditions, then the entire edifice of SAG power in Hollywood will decay and could even collapse.

A merger with a union that includes many thousands of workers – albeit professionals – who have very different economic interests and working conditions can easily dilute the collective sense that the organization is committed to protecting actors. Union staff will be divided among those groups and competition for resources will ensue. Attention will be diverted and new fault lines will develop.

And of course it is highly unlikely that the merger-happy AFL-CIO will stop with this single merger. No doubt if the SAG-AFTRA merger is pushed through, it will be followed by efforts to force that new organization into other alliances. Already, AFTRA is in an alliance with IATSE and it is conceivable there are plans to place what other labor unions view as small organizations into larger players like CWA (where the Newspaper Guild and NABET already reside).

Once the sense takes hold that actors are just one of several if not many occupational groups inside a larger “industrial” union instead of the central craft inside a genuine “trade” union, it is very likely that producers and agencies could begin a campaign to encourage actors to consider non-union productions. Pressure to weaken Global Rule One could easily follow. An uptick in Fi-Cor could occur and the ensuing downward spiral could lead to a post-union entertainment industry.

This seems, of course, a dire prediction. But it is meant to highlight the risks associated with this kind of union reorganization. Very little attention has been paid to these risks.

To take one example, SAG members have received little or no disclosure about the intentions of the AFL-CIO in this process. Yet it is instructive to note that AFTRA has gained the inside track with the AFL-CIO in recent years, securing its own seat on the AFL-CIO Executive Council after leaving the 4A’s.

Merger critics, of course, have a very poor track record of navigating AFL-CIO waters. Their former NED, Doug Allen, was not well known in that environment and did little to help Membership First with that issue when they ran the Guild.

Under NED David White, who has even less experience than Doug Allen with the AFL-CIO, it appears SAG has been willing to follow AFTRA’s lead – it is clear that AFTRA is driving the merger process, building off their unexpected success in winning cable pilot shows in the wake of the 2008-09 negotiations. In a post-SAG organization AFTRA staff and leadership weight will likely grow flush with the success of winning the merger debate.

This points precisely to the very kind of problem that can trigger the downward spiral of support for unionization. When SAG represents actors in cable productions it demands that the production companies sign on to a single master agreement. SAG is successful at this by demonstrating the kind of support for voluntary recognition described above. No cable company risks saying no, we won’t sign this agreement, because SAG can point to Global Rule One and make it clear that failure to sign means you won’t get SAG actors on this set.

AFTRA, however, does not make this claim. And it does not have a master agreement that sets a floor beneath which wages and working conditions cannot fall. Instead it drafts a new form of contract (based on one of four separate templates apparently) each time it negotiates with a cable production company. AFTRA justifies this by arguing it wants to provide those companies flexibility lest those acting jobs go to Canada or elsewhere.

The problem is that this apparently “flexible” approach can easily lead to a race to the bottom in pay and working conditions. It can allow the employer to dictate the basic terms instead of negotiating those terms collectively with the union. But AFTRA does not have what SAG has to enforce a master agreement. SAG knows Tom Cruise will not work a non-SAG project. But AFTRA is unwilling to enforce that kind of rule against Brian Williams or Anderson Cooper.

No doubt merger advocates will say that merger will not change this, that SAG can continue to have Global Rule One inside the new SAG-AFTRA. But that is where the dynamics of a new multi-occupation “industrial” union come into play. Once the union membership and staff get into battles over the allocation of resources among the different occupational groups there will be pressure to compromise. This is precisely what happens in larger conglomerate style unions like the Teamsters. Remarkably, even small differences in working conditions can lead to fierce battles, which is demonstrated by the difficulty UPS workers have had in gaining support inside the Teamsters. It is harder to harmonize upward to better and stronger principles of solidarity than it is to give way to weaker rules and principles.

And, of course, the new organization will not be operating in a vacuum. There will be pressure to merge again with other larger unions where the sense that the organization is for actors will dissipate even further.

SAG meeting circa 1937

Finally, and most ominously, the employers will see this development, the creation of a clumsily organized (and even more clumsily named) SAG-AFTRA entity, as an opportunity to call into question what has been the unquestioned principle of solidarity that has held SAG together, through thick and thin, since 1933.

The idea of merger was conceived by all sides in SAG as a solution to some important problems, but it is now being implemented for altogether different reasons – largely motivated by an overreaction to the already discredited bargaining strategy of one tendency in the union. That is a weak and dangerous basis upon which to build a future for actors.