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.

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

  1. Larry Clardy

    Tearing up the SAG card: how merger with AFTRA could open the door to a non-union Hollywood | Stephe
    stephen-diamond.com All You Merger Hungry Idiots Please Read What A Labor Professor says about the Merger On Face Book On Angel Thompkins Face book! If that does not change your mind Then You are a selfish Self–Looking only out for yourself! May God Help Your Soul!

  2. Michael J Kirkland

    SAG & AFTRA,

    DUH! Are you kidding me!
    Both unions make me sick! You are stepping on all who pay your bills. My dues has been spent on BS such as merger. Lame! Do not endorse this merger. VOTE down! Tell your friends.

    SAG Background. Your voice is well over 20,0000 people strong! What I mean by “people” are the backbone and incredible talented SAG Background. Or what the professionals call them/us… Crap ground, Walking Props, Cattle, EXTRAS and the list goes on. We are actors, writers, directors and producers. Just like the 6 figure income talents. This offends many who does this type of work. The simple fact is that all background in SAG out number all others in the SAG union. So shhh for a moment and let one of them speak. It’s simple math people. More background votes against the merger. This merger will not happen. Background do you realize that your work is being shut down and taken over by cheaper non-union labor. I wanted to say inexpensive non union labor, but SAG makes all the members sound cheap. Thanks SAG.

    Bankruptcy is a word that will be hanging around for most who are in SAG for the next few years. But don’t take my word for it try it yourself. I had to. Thanks SAG!

    Anyways. I know this letter is one of 1000 that is against this lame merger. So I will do a shameless endorsement of my films. Please take a look at all my film pages.

    “choices” http://www.facebook.com/choicesmovie

    “A Moc Mob Scene & The Amazing Talking Alien Baby” http://www.facebook.com/MJKFatty

    A Miraculous Nightmare Survival Through Faith
    http://www.facebook.com/AMiraculousNightmareSurvivalThroughFaith

    Have a great day!

    Oh before I go and all. Would like to let SAG know that when I do films. Just know that I am using all union SAG background in my films for speaking roles.

    Sincerely,

    Michael J Kirkland

  3. Eugene Boggs

    Addendum to my previous comment:

    Prof. Diamond,

    Re: MF’s “failed bargaining strategy” of 2008:

    The bargaining strategy was supposed to be the union’s bargaining strategy, but since the UFS faction was determined to see it as MF’s baby alone and undermined it publicly (as well as in the boardroom) with statements to the press about how wrong-headed it was, it’s difficult for me to see how it might have succeeded. An internal “fifth column” allied with both the bargaining opponent (through the back channel of the big producer/stars including Clooney, Hanks and Sally Fields) and a competing union (AFTRA) made a winning union bargaining strategy difficult to devise much less execute.

    There were positions taken publicly by the USF people that I’ve never seen in another labor-management, contract-bargaining context. It may have occurred elsewhere, but I’ve never heard of it outside the realm of an unadorned “company” or “state” union such as one used to find in the Soviet Union or now in China. Over recent contracts, not just that of 2008, MF’s approach included such conventional-and-hardline-only-to-The-Hollywood-Reporter,-Daily-Variety,-LA-Times-and-the-AMPTP positions as:

    1. maximizing union bargaining leverage by seeking to hold bargaining as close to contract expiration as possible (taking advantage of the employers’ exposure to potential economic harm from production flow disruption well before contract expiration, an almost unique union bargaining advantage today);

    2. trying to make SAG contracts as coterminus as possible with sister Industry unions, especially the Writers’ Guild;

    3. agreeing to continue with the Phase One bargaining partnership with AFTRA under the same insane terms giving them an equal say in the vote despite their pronounced “junior partner” role in the work at issue (an effort they sabotaged with their transparently-pretextual walkout based on a totally-baseless “soap opera” poaching claim, among others.

    All of these positions were undermined from within and mocked and lamented publicly, indeed, trumpeted from the New York boardroom, and the AFTRA-allied quislings in Hollywood SAG. Understand, the division was never so much about the bargaining points (about which there was little open dispute in the boardroom since the objectives had been arrived at through a long process of rank-and-file input and discussion which no union officer could much oppose without being labeled a union traitor). No, the division was always over how to achieve those goals, or as many of them as possible.

    MF’s utterly conventional approach was actually to set about bargaining for them. UFS’s approach was to ask for them and then concede as many of them as the employers resisted at the earliest possible moment rather than risk even a threat of production disruption, their unique-for-a-union “battle cry” being “Save the Biz.”

    Eugene Boggs

  4. Eugene Boggs

    Dear Prof. Diamond,

    On the basic risks of the merger, I think you’re spot-on:

    The pension plans won’t and likely (for a long time anyway) can’t be merged, and that does make a difference in assessing the efficacy and efficiency of the venture.

    SAG and AFTRA have very different bargaining and contract enforcement cultures and very different sorts of workers. What you described at length, I used to say more concisely: Bigger’s not better when you combine workers who work job to job (most SAG people not on a TV series) with people who work 9-5 and get a regular paycheck (maybe not most AFTRA people, but many of the critical broadcasters, the heavy hitters in AFTRA affairs, and even many of the soap stars some of whom have worked on the same show for decades.

    The broadcasters (even this age of blurred media roles) see themselves as journalists, not performers, and certainly not as actors since that is, by definition, a job of deception and illusion, not “truth telling.” Since no SAG strike will ever see the broadcasters going out or even honoring our picket lines, what’s the point of being in a union with them? It gives the lie, from inception, to any notion of union solidarity. The mere thought of both never-saw-a-contract-term-we-won’t-cave-on AFTRA with that mob-tainted legacy of Willie Bioff, IATSE, is more than my heart can stand.

    I think recognizing SAG as a classic AFL-type, “skilled craft” union which will lose its identity, purpose and Industry influence submerged within or transmogrified into a CIO-type “industrial,” and even “for-profit” (per the proposed merged union constitution) enterprise will kill unionism in Hollywood.

    Unionism has always been, in its essence, a social reform movement. One doesn’t put one’s home at risk during a strike merely for the chance of higher pay, or much less face down coal miner owner “gun thugs.” Rather, one does it as part of a broader goal to make a better, more just world for one’s progeny. It is in that sense that strikes are most like wars, in that sense of sacrificing, risking all for something higher, something more than one’s personal financial gain. This not to “romanticize” or “fetishize” strikes, as we Membership First people are propagandized as doing. But it is to say that a union without a credible strike threat (and SAG-AFTRA will, by design, have none) does go to the bargaining table, as Doug Allen (Bless his heart!) used to say, to engage in “collect begging, not collective bargaining.” That’s not union extremism. That’s the most conventional of dispute resolution (bargaining) doctrines. It is, indeed, a law of the natural world known commonly as Newton’s first law of motion:

    “Objects in motion tend to stay in motion, and objects at rest tend to stay at rest unless an outside force acts upon them.” (Source: http://www.physics.utoronto.ca/~phy205/reading01.htm)

    In short, if someone’s pushing you one way, they’ll get their way unless you push (or at least threaten) to push back. In a collective bargaining context, a union which can pose no threat of harm to the employer has no “push back” and will be rolled, always.

    Your piece didn’t even touch on the conflict of governance cultures that an SAG-AFTRA merger would mean:

    SAG is a national, centralized, rigorously-democratic, clean, non-profit union whose elected officers serve as unpaid volunteers. AFTRA is a confederation of locals with union offices elected at a convention, not by direct, rank-and-file elections. While I never joined AFTRA and, hence, never worked in its governing structure, I served for years with a number of SAG board members who were simultaneously serving (in my view in a conflict of interest that was tolerated under the figleaf of sister union solidarity which was never a reality in my years of involvement) as AFTRA board members and their reports of how “orchestrated,” “pre-ordained” and “top-down” much of AFTRA’s governance was always clashed with the world of vibrant, grassroots-sensitive (yes, maybe to the point of some inefficiency and considerable acrimony at times) union democracy I had come to know in SAG. While this stuff is “inside baseball” to most rank-and-file members, it makes a great deal of difference in the union’s perceived mission and policy.

    Everything about AFTRA suggests that with its own people and its SAG-embedded “copperheads” (rather strong language I know, but I’m one of those “mindless militants” from MF) running the show in the new union, SAG-AFTRA will become what the studios and, most critically, what the big-name, producer/actors like George Clooney and Tom Hanks want: a nominal “union” that never strikes or even threatens to strike and serves largely as a sort of “auto club” for actors providing some services for distressed actors (copies of contracts, union rep response to on-set contract violations and abuse, etc.) much as an auto club provides free maps and emergency road service.

    I don’t know if you’ve ever come to appreciate how important to this whole merger campaign, inside and outside the boardroom, the inherently-conflicted-but-traditionally-tolerated-and-even-venerated-due-to-their-professional-stature actor/producers are. I once asked in the boardroom what I characterized as the Talmudic question, “Why is our union, SAG, different from all other unions?” And my answer was, “Because, my brothers and sisters, SAG allows its employers not only to be union members, but also welcomes them as governing officers.”

    You may see my view (forged over a lot of years of pre-SAG union involvement starting with my first post-college job as a Teamster cooper’s assistant-warehouseman at the First National (grocery) Stores warehouse in Somerville, Massachusetts through years of part-time work as a unionized public school, substitute teacher and, finally, years of private law practice representing unionized public employees: police, firefighters and paramedics) as “rigidly doctrinaire” if not “mindlessly militant” within the Hollywood context, but I doubt that you’ve ever seen how those “Left-Coast-Liberal, Darfur-concerned, producer/employers behave toward someone dressed only in a loin cloth whom they’ve hired to lie motionless for many minutes over who-knows-how-many takes on a dry lake bed in 100-degree-plus-Fahrenheit, heat and direct, unshaded, midday sunlight.

    Such employers never were (including the sainted boy wonder, Irving Thalberg)and are not now benign; they are not “enlightened;” they are no more liberal than Henry Clay Frick was at Homestead as it concerns running their businesses.

    They are bosses dealing as bosses do with weak, easily-replaceable, unskilled workers. They are, more often than you probably can imagine, merciless brutes or, as they are popularly praised by Democratic Party political candidates dialing for campaign dollars, “corporate leaders and entrepreneurs.” I could testify, under oath if called upon, from experience on set after union production set, working in the cold, heat, smoke, without proper places to change, or store one’s belongings safely, or go to the toilet, and on and on.

    Ask my younger brother, Glenn, who worked for months as a flesh-and-blood member of the in-its-most-recent-iteration-CGI-replaced “ape army” in Tim Burton’s ill-fated Planet of the Apes film. Glenn was in that suit for hours without set meals or adequate opportunities to relieve oneself, marching and loping around in deserts, lava beds, near bodies of water into which a fall would mean almost certain death given the weight of the costume, working with burning torches and arrows, as background, not much-better-paid stunt performers. These are the sorts of conditions to which people (but not animals because the SPCA’s protective enforcement can be more reliable than a union’s) are routinely subjected even with union contract rights unless there is an often-and-unscheduled rep presence on the set.

    Employers with these sorts of employment practices must be confronted as such with bargaining and contractual protections appropriate to the situation.

    As for the oft-heard response that the union “lumpen” should be more flexible towards the attitudes and concerns of the high earners, especially the big stars, because they “put butts in the seats” and drive Industry prosperity, our answer has always been that it’s their very wealth and comparative security within the Industry that should prompt the stars to show solidarity with their union brothers and sisters who are more vulnerable. As actors age, the Industry being what it is and is evermore becoming, high earners become not-so-high earners, and salary quotes give way to contract minimums once again, and many a star has never appreciated the magic of compound interest, hence, looking to a pension for old age security to which they’d shown no concern when the world was young and parts were plentiful. So, stars, should support rank-and-file members’ rights and aspirations. George Clooney, the great puppet master of the pro-merger faction, can, in time, easily become our side’s Elliott Gould, Ocean’s 11 et al, pals though they are.

    When SAG took the extras jurisdiction from the defunct SEG in the early 1990s, it became again what it had sought to unmake itself in the 1940s when it shed the Hollywood extras, an uneasy combination, as you have noted, of CIO-type workers (the extras, often-unskilled, numerous and easily replaceable, hence, in need of classical, arms-length bargaining and strict, vigilant contract enforcement) and the skilled, craftspeople (and in some cases true artists) forming the predominant membership of actors in the AFL-like Screen Actors Guild. The experience of most contemporary skilled actors who have achieved a level of success (established “character,” supporting performers in films and television up to major stars with worldwide fame) including my other Harvard sister, Amy Brenneman, Kate Walsh and the like, with these employers is a good deal more benign, less confrontational or blatantly exploitative. And, in any case, such performers command a far higher rate of compensation than even the most successful union background performer who has little or no scripted, directed, and spoken work. So, it is not surprising that there is, in such a union, especially a democratic one where, in theory anyway, just about any member can get on a board election ballot and even win a seat on the board, that this difference in attitude toward union bargaining and enforcement policy would exist.

    So, in my view, those of us you characterize as “mindlessly militant” were simply “low-earning union folk” behaving as realists consistent with our experience in the workplace. The side the Hollywood trade and conventional media invariably term “moderates,” (note: “militant,” “hardliner” = terms of opprobrium; “moderate,” = term of approbation in the American dictionary of the received, consensus, conventional wisdom of the “serious,” “adult” people.)

    How many other unions have an earnings range of its membership, for union work, that can run from, say, $40,000,000+ for a years work (at $20 million per picture for two pictures a year for a Tom Cruise) to $200 or zero for a year? And some of those high earners also earn money, often more than they earn acting, as producer/employers of their fellow union actors.

    If my fellow union actors at that Simi Valley dry lake bed set of Ghost Brigade had not collectively refused (“mutinied” in the words of the astonished director) to stretch out prone (to play dead) on the furnace-hot ground, I should almost-certainly still bear the scars from the burns that would have resulted. If one of us had not had the courage (not me by the way) to call a union rep out to the location to stand up for our contractual rights, we would have been treated as literal slaves, not mere make-believe ones; but just us, not Martin Sheen, or Corbin Bernson, or Cynda Williams or her then-husband, Billy Bob Thornton, all of whom had principal parts in the same production (though only Bernson and Williams were working that day). For all I know, given their trailers, and restrooms and air conditioners (none of which were provided for us), and pay, this little Confederate-soldiers-turned-zombies “cult” curio of a film might have been a pleasant, if-not-the-most-artistically-fulfilling experience. But, I can tell you this: it was a near-death experience for the background. But we were all working as union brothers and sisters under the same contract. And all of us pay our dues, the least of us more, in proportion to our earnings, than the most successful. So we all feel entitled to have a say in how such contracts are collectively-bargained and how they are enforced according to the working conditions we face.

    Over the last twenty years of my experiences within SAG governance, committee work and board service, the union’s strong and admirable tendency to egalitarianism and rank-and-file participation has led it to cede (through supposed “reforms” for efficiency (via reducing the board’s size, and, hence, increasing its exclusivity to richer members who can afford the campaign costs of competing for the fewer seats available) and strict numerical representative proportionality of active (as distinct from “contractually-working”) membership) the critical balance of power (naively in the name of democracy) away from the Hollywood-studio-actor-founded, numerical-and-earnings-predominant union base in Southern California to the rival power base of New York in alliance with the comparatively-contract-work-scarce, right-to-work-law-handicapped, tiny-membership-involved, perennially-elected-uncontested-and-in-essence-serving-as-life-members board members from those same regional branches, branches which often share physical office spaces and those same board members with AFTRA. Thusly has SAG sown the seeds of its own demise, and as you, postulate, perhaps the demise of unionism, itself, in Hollywood.

    Thank goodness for Linsanity! I need something to distract me and perhaps even give me hope as so much I, and so many others, famous and unknown, have struggled to nurture and advance for nearly 80 years is being thrown on the ash pile of history.

    I, of course, do not speak for SAG in any way in anything I have said above. Everything I have written is my personal opinion.

    Yours sincerely,

    Roy Eugene Boggs, Jr. (SAG registered as simply Eugene Boggs)

  5. Jeff Austin

    Can someone please explain where this increased “power & leverage” comes from? How does it happen? You need to look at this from Management’s side of the table. Why would the Studios be intimidated by a merging of the same Actors who would be showing resolve if SAG & AFTRA were still in Phase One Collective Bargaining? There’s no difference, no increased number of Actors to withhold services and therefore no increased leverage or power. Also, SAG & AFTRA negotiated the Exhibit A/TV Theatrical Contract together last time. We’re now down to a 2% raise each of the three Contract years instead of our traditional 3-3 1/2% along with a few egregious rollbacks thrown in… signed seven months before the expiration. That’s your “power & leverage.” And, the Broadcaster category is a separate Contract and therefore cannot support the Actors with any “power” or “leverage” or vice versa. I’m telling you Management is grinning from ear to ear. Now they only have to deal with one “Union” with no teeth.

  6. Robert

    What we really need in this is a merger of “actors”, not everyone else in the casserole. When AFTRA can really be a union for it’s members––and I’m specifically talking here about the big time newscasters that are working non-inion––then they should be taken seriously, but not now. Roberta Reardon (being paid by us when no other elected people in the unions are) has shown herself to be not very capable of the truth, especially in dealing with jurisdiction. Too many lies and partial truths to be an effective and trustworthy leader. All actors should be in one union. It doesn’t hurt that we already have the greatest actors union that has ever been, SAG. Leave the broadcasters, weathermen, d.j.’s and the like in AFTRA, who have traditionally been the union of radio and news. Straight and simple.

  7. Peggy Fury

    Until I actually see a plan that states facts for how this merger is going to benifit both SAG and AFTRA members in detail then I do not feel comfortable in weakening the status that we now have. I haven’t seen or heard of any substantial plans for strengthening our position by uniting. Why would I buy a car without a steering wheel or tires and hope someone will give me them
    just because I have the other parts? Right now we are weak because no one seems to be able to come up with a solid plan. It seems that the only ones who will benifit by rushing into a union are the producers. One Guild would be great for the obvious reasons however we want to make sure we are protected for our future. Outlinging steps necessary to confirm our benefits for the future is not to much to ask for before we vote.

  8. Stephen Diamond Post author

    As I have pointed out elsewhere be careful of the way in which numbers are thrown around. The real numbers are those who actually vote. I don’t know how many AFTR members vote but there only needs to be enough to outweigh the MF voters to accomplish the real goal of this merger. I have been a well known critic of MF tactics in the 2008 bargaining round but my point is that this merger is clearly motivated, at least in part, by an overreaction to that failed strategy.

  9. Margaret

    Francis Fisher’s comment above is full of distortions and untruths, starting with “I’ve been holding off on this” – I’ve seen this same lie-filled screed 4 times on different sites since 24 hours after the SAG-AFTRA proposal appeared. Each posting is refuted carefully in the ensuing comments, with actual facts, which she blithely ignores as she finds another site in which to repost.
    Stephen’s blog post here is equally unhelpful. Almost every single statement springs from a false premise, which he at least tips his hat to by beginning so many of his assertions with the phrases “this could lead to” or “this could easily”, “it is not inconceiveable that”, “what could possibly occur”, “can easily lead to”, and on and on, helped along with plenty of “ominously”s and “obviously”s. He makes breathtakingly false statements that increase in egregiousness as the article goes on and he feels he’s laid enough groundwork to begin leaping more confidently past facts into fancy. He asserts that merger is being “pushed through” primarily by AFTRA, (despite the fact that the newly elected pro-merger SAG board began, ran, and completed the merger talks) and goes on to conclude that after merger, “AFTRA will be flush with success” and therefore (naturally) be emboldened to continue its rapacious ways, weakening contracts right and left and “diluting” the actor’s union strength.
    “Dilute” is a code word for the MFers, used to trigger the fear that lowly radio/newscaster/background folk will be allowed to rise among actors, the purebloods.
    The hatred of Membership Firsters toward AFTRA for leaving the bargaining table in 2008 (after being frequently and publicly insulted by the MF leadership) knows no bounds, and they have found an open ear in Mr. Diamond. If they can spread hatred effectively, the internecine war can continue, merger can be defeated again, and MFers can triumph again, after their bitter defeat in the last SAG election. Their rage and unreasoning fear lead them to unleash their frustrated creativity on painting a picture of a terrifying future at the hands of our enemies, the AFTRAns. On numerous anti-merger sites, they compare the push to merger with Hitler’s march into Poland (yes, really). They come to informational meetings to shout and scream. Who really knows what Reardon meant if she said there were ways union leaders could help union members deal with crossing picket lines – she either meant what Diamond asserts she meant, or she was about to amend or explain, but we’ll never know, as the anti-mergers in the crowd drowned out her further words in roars of outrage and triumph. Just as they used to break rules in the boardroom when they were in charge of SAG, and refused to sanction fellow MFers who broke rules egregiously, the anti-merger activists break rules of decorum and unwritten ones of honesty in the name of winning what they see as a war. When their lies are pointed out to them, they post them elsewhere (or tweet, or email, or shout). Their only effective tool is fear of the unknown, and many who share this fear have hopped on board.
    I can’t say what life will be like after merger, but if we can just get past these days of disinformation and fear-mongering, we’ll all certainly be able to hear each other a little better, using the democratic process built into the SAG-AFTRA constitution. WIth a 5-to-1 ratio of actors to all other performers represented in the union, actors don’t have to worry about not being heard… contrary to what Mr. Diamond baselessly asserts.

  10. No Drama

    Actually it’s worth while for all concerned to go to the informational meetings as there are many conclusions being arrived at that I quite frankly don’t see when I read my material. What I do know is we have a commercial contract to negotiate this fall and other contracts that have got to be done. And there is never a perfect time. Nothing is being jammed through as I see it. Material is online to be read. Informational meetings are being held in advance of the ballots being mailed out and if you don’t want more leverage at the bargaining table then you don’t want to earn more money than you already are. Right now we only negotiate the commercial and the TV/Theatrical contracts together. Cable is a mess because we don’t do them together. TV is a mess because the last one wasn’t done together. SAG doesn’t have an Interactive Contract nor do they have an Agency agreement with NATR and ATA agents which is one of the reasons non union is amuck. Our agents used to be our first line of defense against non union. And while AFTRA has the same agreement that SAG turned down six years ago, none of the horrific anti actor things have happened that Membership First predicted would happen if the agreement went through. Merging the Plans is not being avoided. They are completely separate from the unions and the only way to solve the problems of split earnings is to merge the unions then the contracts will be done under one organization and then the Plans will have to solve the problem. Their mandate is to make sure all their participants are taken care of. And much of what is being questioned is already in the Constitution that currently exists. Go to a meeting. Ask questions.

  11. Ty Ford

    David, You have written an indecipherable run on sentence. Other than “no” to merger, what are you saying?

  12. Frances

    from a Screen Actors Guild member:
    Dear All:

    I’ve been holding off on this, but we’re two weeks away from the merger ballot being mailed, and I’d literally feel irresponsible if I failed to point SOME things out.

    PLEASE READ ALL OF THIS BEFORE YOU VOTE. IT’S INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT.

    FIRST, WHAT IS THE POINT OF MERGER?

    For my entire career what I’ve wished most from my unions has been to COMBINE my acting income under SAG and AFTRA for pension and medical benefits. I never wished for “increased leverage at the bargaining table.” No one can quantify how much “leverage” we’re supposed to gain — but I can tell you precisely when I make my insurance. And which years I didn’t make it, because my income was split between my two guilds.

    This merger not only doesn’t do a thing about that, it actively AVOIDS the situation entirely, saying “we’ll take care of all that afterward.” Well, when exactly is that? This proposed deal was worked on and hammered out over NINE MONTHS … and in all that time there was not one word of input from — or to — the Trustees who control our pensions and our health coverage. They were not consulted, period. Pension and Health wasn’t a part of this process at all.

    If we’re not merging to combine pensions and medical, then pray tell what are we merging FOR?

    SECOND, WHY THE HUGE STINKIN’ RUSH?

    After forming our union in the first place, this is the biggest decision in the history of the Guild — and the final ballots are being rushed out less than 30 days from the first public announcement of the plan. BIG rush! Do it NOW!!!! — Has there EVER been a call to action and a ballot on it in less than 30 days before now?

    So the question is … why? We’re literally in the middle of a vote on the AFTRA TV contract, which will be in effect for THREE MORE YEARS. The current SAG Theatrical/TV contracts RUN THROUGH 2014. That means there CANNOT BE ANY JOINT CONTRACTS UNTIL AFTER THAT. Earnings will continue to be split for AT LEAST the next three years, because the old contracts will still be legal and binding for that long.

    What exactly is the rationale for jamming this through right now, this minute, with so many details “to be worked out later” ?

    SAG and AFTRA have been bargaining jointly for many years — except when they don’t. The AFTRA TV contracts are cheaper for producers, in terms of residuals. Did you know that for their current basic cable deal, AFTRA allows a three-year residual buyout for (wait for it) 15% of the session fee? Check the AFTRA contract here: ( http://www.aftra.org/documents/SEC1.nbi.pdf ) There are reports that AMPTP is smelling blood in the water, and the chance to kill residuals altogether. Half a decade ago that was their outright declared intention. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/12/business/media/12hollywood-web.html ) It’s a common opinion right now that AMPTP is staying out of this current situation — washing their collective hands like Pontius Pilate — because producers don’t need to lift a finger to see contracts weakened to the point where more resids are given up. They only have to wait.

    QUESTION:
    HAVE YOU ACTUALLY READ THE
    PROPOSED CONSTITUTION?

    –Not had it “explained,” “digested,” “prepared,” or “analyzed” for you by someone else, but actually read the words in it yourself? You should. No, I take that back; you MUST.

    No, it’s not fun. It’s confusing. It takes effort. It cuts into your leisure time … but it’s the blueprint for your life as a professional actor. Your career, your retirement and your medical care. And a whole bunch of people spent nine months crafting it — in SECRET

    There are some interesting points in it. Did you know that:

    – 1 – The new Union will CHARGE “ADMINISTRATIVE FEES” FOR HANDLING AND PAYING OUT OUR RESIDUALS, like the bank charges for your checking account. How much? Oh, they don’t say. Perhaps you were under the impression that’s what some of your dues were for. Apparently not. And just to make sure, these unspecified fees are mentioned TWO places in the new constitution. [ p. 8, Article IV (B) & p. 39, Article XI (F) ]

    – 2 – NEW SAG-AFTRA OFFICERS WILL SERVE FOR 2 YEARS (LIKE NOW) BUT BOARD MEMBER TERMS WILL BE INCREASED TO 4 YEARS AS IN AFTRA. Halfway between Congress’ 2 years, and the Senate’s 6 years. [ p. 19, Article V (H) ]

    Except that Board elections will be every TWO years. Confused much? [ p. 17, Article V (G) (2) ]

    – 3 – WORDING IN THE PROPOSED CONSTITUTION WILL ALLOW OFFICERS AND BOARD MEMBERS TO BE PAID BY THE UNION.

    The current SAG constitution specifically, absolutely says: “No elective Officer or member of the Board of Directors shall receive any compensation for his or her services, or serve in any position in the Guild for which he or she is compensated.”

    However, the current AFTRA constitution, as of 2007, specifically allows their Board “to determine the compensation of any officer or other person performing services for the Association.” Rather like Congress determines its own compensation. (Interesting note: did you know that for the past year Roberta Reardon has received $3,500 per month “stipend” plus expenses from AFTRA — over $45K so far — specifically for working on this merger? http://www.radio-info.com/news/aftra-will-pay-roberta-reardon-for-her-merger-work
    Here is the pertinent section of the new constitution — in its entirety: [ p. 30, Article VIII (H) ]

    “No employee working for the Union shall be eligible to serve as a National Officer, a member of the National Board, Local Board, Wages and Working Conditions Committee, Negotiating Committee or delegate to the Convention … provided, however, that the National Board may establish policies and procedures defining who shall be considered a Union employee for purposes of this provision.”

    In SAG we have employees (staff) and we have members. They’re kind of hard to confuse. Ever seen an employee who was also a working actor — much less an officer or Board member? So why does the Board need to be able to define what an employee is?

    Let’s boil it down — what exactly ARE the specific “purposes of this provision”? Good question. It’s NOT EVEN HINTED AT. Legal advisors say what this provision will allow is for officers and Board members to be paid — as long as they declare themselves to not be “employees.”

    – 4 – AFTER MEMBERS VOTE IT INTO EXISTENCE, THE NEW CONSTITUTION CAN BE CHANGED BY THE NATIONAL CONVENTION WITHOUT A MEMBER VOTE. [ p. 44, Article XVIII (A) (1) ]

    – 5 – THE BOARD AND NATIONAL CONVENTION CAN INSTITUTE A MERGER WITH ANOTHER UNION (OR “ORGANIZATION”) WITHOUT A MEMBER VOTE. [ p. 47, Article XXI (D) ]

    – 6 – THE NATIONAL BOARD’S POWERS INCLUDE BEING ABLE TO DO LOTS OF OTHER THINGS WITHOUT A MEMBER VOTE.

    “Interpret the Constitution” — regardless of the words in the document or the original intent, the Board can decide what it really means

    “Determine the obligations of the members” — in regard to what? UNSPECIFIED; could be financial, political, social. At any time the Board can change what criteria you must meet in order to become — or remain — a member.

    “Approve collective bargaining agreements” — obviously for decisions this important mere members can’t be trusted to make them.

    “Delegate its authority” — to whom? UNSPECIFIED. It could be a single individual, like the EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT or NATIONAL EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, or even an OUTSIDE CONSULTANT.

    All these Board powers (and many more) are listed on pp. 10 & 11, Article V (C)

    YES, I know this is boring, stultifying stuff — but it’s deadly important, and there’s so much more. Protect yourselves. Learn what’s going on.

    DON’T TAKE ANYONE’S WORD FOR
    ANYTHING ABOUT THIS STUFF, NOT EVEN MINE.
    — READ THE DOCS AND SEE FOR YOURSELF.

    THEN DECIDE IF WE SHOULD ALLOW OURSELVES
    TO BE RUSHED INTO THIS WITH SO MANY
    QUESTIONS DELIBERATELY AND WILFULLY IGNORED.
    http://www.aftra.org/documents/SEC1.nbi.pdf
    http://www.aftra.org

  13. Stephen Diamond Post author

    Of course one striking “fact” in the “history” of SAG is that it has always rejected a merger with AFTRA.

  14. Larry Vigus

    We who are members of SAG and not MOVIE or TV stars are also members of AFTRA. We work TV, Film, Commercials, Radio, Recordings, Industrial and Educational, as actors, dancers, stunt-people, puppeteers, voice-over artists, announcers, singers and other specialties. Merging these two performers unions will consolidate our power and continue the success of both unions. We will be even prouder of a SAG-AFTRA card because it represents ALL professional performers who work in media. We are a unified work force who are employed by the same big 7 giant entertainment corporations. Your “what ifs” and “maybes” are fear-mongering with no basis in history or fact. You might as well argue against swimming in the ocean because there might be sea monsters.

  15. david hillberg

    once this specialty representative unit is merged with the multi none specialty representative unit all negotiation strength will be diluted as demonstrated with Phase One and all W&W since then with an AFTRA poaching of SAG jurisdiction as a resultant with collusive aid of those “pro merger cliques” within SAG

Leave a Reply