In case you’ve been method acting a role from ancient times and missed it, there’s a civil war going on within the Screen Actor’s Guild (SAG). It’s civil like other civil wars. To the untrained eye it might look like a fight between militants and moderates, or just a drunken brawl. It is neither. It is really a fight between the members who would like to merge SAG and AFTRA (The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), and the members who would like to kill AFTRA. Both sides agree that to have two unions covering the same work is stupid; the war is over the best way to get to one union (get it? union?)?
If you try to judge the dispute by who is on which side you’ll have a hard time. There are celebrities on both sides. There are lefties and right-wingers (and just plain wing-nuts) on both sides. There are even those who switch sides–myself included. My own involvement is long and complicated. My active union involvement (that is besides acting) began in 1994. I was in NY, went to a SAG meeting where there was an open mic for members, and asked why none of the cable shows were covered, and why comedians were being played to death with no residuals at all. The then NY President Paul Hecht said something like “good question, would you serve on one of our committees?” I said “no, but I’d like to start one for comedians.”
That was the beginning of what became the AFTRA/SAG (and now /WGA) Comedian’s Caucus. From its inception it was a joint caucus because from the performer’s perspective it was random whether a show was under a SAG or an AFTRA contract. Most of us were members of both unions, but we allowed all comedians to join, even if they were not yet union, because that was the pool of performers that the producers would seek to hire, and without covering the whole labor pool you don’t have the power in a bargaining situation. We also cared about our fellow comics. It didn’t matter which union’s contract we were being exploited under, and too often we had no contract and would’ve been happy for either union to cover us, particularly in cable. An example of the arbitrary nature of who covers what is Comedy Central: though almost all shows were eventually covered by AFTRA, SAG claims jurisdiction over South Park (which, by the way, remains non-union). Our first achievement was to get $65,000 in back pay for an old Comedy Central show that happened to have been under an AFTRA contract. However, most shows on the network were non-union, so we could do nothing about underpayment or anything else for those who did them. At that time, AFTRA seemed more interested in organizing in basic cable, so we started working more closely with AFTRA staff. Through a lot of member organizing and help from the union boards and staffs, we got the first network contract at Comedy Central and the first contract at BET. It took years to accomplish this, and a good deal of courage and effort on the part of many comics.
During the campaigns it became clear that with no comedian on the board of either union, our needs were not high priorities and in some cases were not even understood (e.g. unlike other actors, comics are subject to exploitation not only of their performances, but of their writing as well). New contracts like these (i.e. individual shows or new networks that were not covered under the handful of major contracts) were not subject to member voting, but were approved by the boards. So at some point I ran for the board of each union and ended up serving on both.