Business as usual already at new union SAG-AFTRA

The actors and broadcasters union negotiating team has reached a new contract with the advertising industry. The terms were supposed to be strictly confidential pending a meeting of the 160 (!) member national board of the union next weekend. But as is inevitably the case in Hollywood someone leaked the deal terms, this time to the new union’s favorite scribe, Jonathan Handel at the Hollywood Reporter.

While the precise language is not available and the terms are, as is also inevitably the case in Hollywood, complex, debate among actors has focused on the proposed 6% up front wage increase. Actors known to have favored the merger of SAG and AFTRA are touting this term while merger critics point out that spread over four years (keeping in mind that the wage hike is a one time event until the contract expires and has to make up for a one year freeze the unions agreed to a year ago) they barely will keep up with inflation.

The tension emerging now is usual for the union but is likely increased because of the kinds of promises made by merger advocates when SAG and AFTRA agreed to create what was called a “new union.” Much was made of the idea that merger would increase the bargaining leverage of the unions. If so, a deal like this does not provide much evidence.

Historically AFTRA has been the more business like union of the two. And so predictably merger backers defend the deal by contending that “unionism is business.” This is the evidence of an employer mindset filtering its way into the union membership. When that happens the employer sits back and smiles because he knows that he has succeeded in getting union members to do his work for him. One merger advocate, for example, suggests the one year wage freeze does not count because SAG and AFTRA not the new entity SAG-AFTRA made that deal – a classic corporate excuse often heard when employers restructure their companies to avoid union contracts.

Mergers like the one engineered by SAG and AFTRA moderates always look attractive on paper but the real merger that must take place for a union to be successful is to unify membership around shared goals and a strategy. That is much harder to do. In the case of these unions the suspicious shift of TV pilots to AFTRA contracts was instrumental in securing votes for the deal. It comes as no surprise then that the new entity has failed to achieve significant gains in its first true test. The merger was built on a culture of “unionism as business” and that is not a basis for genuine success for what must be a collective and creative effort.