I was known on the boards for my militance and lack of decorum. At one heated meeting while discussing a contract proposal that would cover comedians, but was unacceptable to the comics for its substandard wages and residual structure, I asked the staff and leaders on the dais to “grow a dick.” For a great many years both unions continued to renegotiate the big network contracts that had been in place ,and through a lack of organizing allowed the entire cable industry to grow up around it, making organized labor in our industry a lot less powerful.
The same companies owned the cable companies and the networks and studios under contract, so it was no surprise that they chose to produce more and more in the more profitable (because they were) non-union companies. Some of us were very impatient with “change takes time” and we wanted our unions to start aggressively organizing. I was elected to the board of SAG along with the first incarnation of what has now become Membership First (it was called Performer’s Alliance then). Some of its current members were on that slate with me, as was John Connolly (later president of AFTRA and now Executive Director of Actors’ Equity). While we jointly pushed for more organizing and a harder line at negotiations, a major fissure grew within our ranks. This was over the issue of whether to merge SAG and AFTRA. I simply could not understand why it would not be to our advantage to merge forces and make it impossible for the producers to undercut our contracts by playing us against each other (or more accurately against ourselves, as most actors are in both unions.) *
Those opposed to merger argued that because AFTRA represented broadcasters as well, that it would weaken actors. I see just the opposite. We have the same employers, and the more employees of a company you cover, the stronger your position is at the bargaining table. I also think the distinction between broadcasters and actors is ever fuzzier. David Letterman was a weatherman, now he is a performer. What is Jon Stewart? Larry King? Or any of the many who go back and forth. And since news is more and more infotainment, where is this great distinction? And if you’re in a labor dispute, wouldn’t you want those reporting on it to be on your side? Further, actors and broadcasters would not be voting for each other’s contracts. So to my mind, the desire to kill AFTRA is not the power move.
The approval of the recent theatrical contract aligns SAG with the other unions (DGA, WGA, AFTRA) both in its terms, and perhaps more importantly in terms of when it expires. This allows the unions to work together in 2 years time to go back and bargain for serious gains in the internet and new media areas (cell phones and chips in our heads, etc.). It also means that the issue now turns to the upcoming union elections. That election is about whether to continue with Membership First’s effort to destroy AFTRA or to turn over the Hollywood leadership to Unite For Strength (which is aligned with most of the rest of the country) and merge, finally. I’d like to see this civil war end without anyone having to go to the Hague. But if that did happen, and then became a reality show, I’d like to see it covered by just the one (merged) union. Maybe then the actors could hope to qualify for a health and pension plan.
*There are 120,000 SAG members ,and 70,000 AFTRA members, of which 44,000 are already dual card holders. That leaves only 26,000 AFTRA-only members, 10K of whom define themselves as Actors and less than 5K as Broadcasters. That means that 83% of the combined membership – who will be electing all new leadership , will be formerly SAG members. And 130k of the 146K total members – or 89% – would be actors.
About the author: Betsy Salkind is a stand-comic, writer (of books and other stuff), and activist (in the area of child protection – where there are too few people doing it to have any infighting).