After lengthy negotiations, Hollywood’s two biggest actors unions have agreed to a merger. The parties reached a tentative pact on Monday, January 16, after being holed up for nine days at the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel. A vote by SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) members is expected to take place as early as April, and if 60 per cent of each union agrees, they will become known as SAG-AFTRA.
Although the merger is expected to pass (arguably, the result of apathy and desperation rather than exuberance), there is still some trepidation among SAG’s rank-and-file. After all, this represents a huge step for them, and, clearly, bigger ain’t always “better.” These SAG members fear that by merging with AFTRA, their own union—like so many others that opted for panicky, bad-fit mergers and now regret it—will be diluted and marginalized.
I asked a well-placed and knowledgeable SAG insider for his views on the proposed merger. Because of a “non-disparagement” agreement that forbids union board and committee members to speak negatively about the proposal (How’s that for old-fashioned freedom of speech?), and because getting acting jobs in Hollywood is tricky enough without sacrificially identifying yourself as a “malcontent,” he requested anonymity. Here is his overview.
“My biggest concern with the merger is the unknown impact it will have on SAG’s pension and health plans. A 2003 study suggested that merging SAG’s plans with AFTRA’s would result in the diminution of SAG’s overall package. A comprehensive study is absolutely imperative before we vote on this proposed merger.
“SAG and AFTRA have been negotiating together since 1981. Some might say that the weaknesses that exist in key areas of our respective contracts today demonstrate that so-called ‘leverage’ doesn’t count for much if there is little evidence of a willingness to use that ‘leverage’ when needed.
“I hope both unions agree to send out an objective ‘pro’ and ‘con’ statement included in the merger referendum. And I hope they agree to commissioning a feasibility study prior to the vote. Members should have access to all of this information prior to voting. From what I’ve read and what I know, this merger will not provide members with either what they are demanding or what they are expecting.”
Historically, SAG, which has about 125,000 members and represents mainly actors, has been the stronger, savvier and more prestigious union. In addition to actors, AFTRA (which got its start in radio and has about 70,000 members) represents emcees, hosts, comedians, television news personalities, DJs, sports and entertainment announcers, singers, dancers, professional pitchmen, etc. Approximately 40,000 people belong to both unions.
Both SAG and AFTRA negotiate with the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers), which means the team that sits across the table from the union reps in a contract bargain, and argues with them about money and benefits, represents the interests of the producers. So it breaks down to the actors vs. the producers. The artists vs. the bean-counters. Management vs. Labor. Your classic dichotomy.
Except for one detail. Some of the most influential union members in Hollywood (Tom Hanks, George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, Alec Baldwin, Robert DeNiro) happen to be producers themselves, which makes things more complicated. Another detail: Agents who represent the actors are allowed to have equity in the projects being discussed. In other words, an agent who’s paid to get an actor a fair price for a role in a movie is allowed to be a profit-taker in that same movie. Why isn’t that a conflict of interest?
One cannot conceive of a similar dynamic existing in an industrial labor environment. Just think about it. A union leader who represents the workers employed in a widget manufacturing factory, but who also happens to be the boss of his own widget factory? A widget factory that employs the very workers who belong to the same union in which he holds rank-and-file membership? Huh? That not only boggles the mind, it’s freakish. It simply wouldn’t happen in the real world.
But these anomalies are partly what make the entertainment conglomerates and the guilds affiliated with them so difficult to understand and navigate. And not to whine about the media, but they haven’t helped. In fact, they’ve been an impediment. In 2008, the media unfairly characterized SAG’s Membership First negotiators as “hard-liners,” which was not only inaccurate, but, sadly, unintentionally indicative of the depths to which people’s expectations have sunk. Apparently, we’ve reached the point where workaday actors asking wealthy Hollywood producers for a fair shake at the bargaining table makes them “hard-liners.”
It’s undeniable that unions across the country are being ravaged, and that the middle-class is being systematically dismantled. And it’s equally obvious that Hollywood, glamorous and fabled as it may be, is not averse to jumping on that bandwagon. What those Membership First officers were trying to do in 2008, despite a very labor-hostile environment, was simply provide SAG membership with the best contract they could possibly deliver. Isn’t that the job of a labor union?
If this were any big-time service or industrial union, those Membership First folks would be regarded as nothing more than your garden variety union negotiators. Management pushes, they push back. Only in the movie industry would they be depicted as subversive. Still, frustrating and disappointing as it is, given Hollywood’s unique labor dynamic maybe it shouldn’t be unexpected. In fact, maybe it comes with the territory.
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”
DAVID MACARAY, an LA playwright and author (“It’s Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor”), was a former union rep. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org