SAG and AFTRA Should Rethink Merger Plans

sag-logoAfter AFTRA launched its pre-emptive strike with a proposal to form a new union entirely, SAG President Ken Howard has, as expected, endorsed the idea of merger in a statement to members according to Variety.

The last time the two unions tried to merge, SAG members defeated the proposal and if they are smart they will do so again.

The reason is simple enough: there is little in common between the “news and broadcast” side of AFTRA and the actors that populate the television programming that AFTRA represents and adding SAG film, TV, and voice over performers into the mix does little to advance the cause of actor power in the industry.

And what is worse, the proposals now on the table likely harm the power of actors rather than improve it.

Here is an alternative: split AFTRA into two with News and Broadcast to join as an affiliate of the Communications Workers of America under the widely respected Larry Cohen. CWA has already made room for print journalists (the old Newspaper Guild) and NABET (TV technical staff) and so the News and Broadcast members would find a comfortable home there. Meanwhile, actors in AFTRA would join SAG which would assume responsibility for all TV and film performer contracts, perhaps establishing separate internal divisions: Film, TV and New Media.

[Update: My friend Tom Ligon, who disagrees with me on merger, points out - correctly - that I should have taken into account the recording artists represented by AFTRA. My view is that the key is the word "artists" - and so these members should migrate to SAG, as well, since they face many of the same kinds of challenges that dramatic artists face as opposed to the 9 to 5 life of News and Broadcast and journalists.]

This approach achieves what I think is key to strengthening the effectiveness of unions in entertainment, which is making sure that the glue that holds workers together is strongest. In film and TV that glue is created around what actors, and actors alone, do on a daily basis.

If you want to understand the difference, attend a play on Broadway or somewhere in your home town and then turn on the evening news when you get home. The difference in the lives of the two groups should be crystal clear.

My wife and I saw Red a couple of weeks ago in New York with Alfred Molina playing the artist Mark Rothko.  Here is a description from a NY Times review of Molina’s preparation for the part:

For Mr. Molina, the challenge of playing a complicated character like Rothko has meant immersing himself in the artist’s world. He read everything about Rothko he could get his hands on, toured the Four Seasons to see where the paintings were to have hung and viewed every artwork mentioned in the play, including Matisse’s “Red Studio” at the Museum of Modern Art (a poster of it hangs in his dressing room), Michelangelo’s Medici Library in Florence and Caravaggio’s “Conversion of Saul” in Rome. He even made a day trip to Washington last week to see the Rothko Room at the Phillips Collection and the Rothkos on view at the National Gallery of Art.

I have interacted with a lot of TV, radio and print journalists over the years, largely through interviews I do sometimes on a daily basis, and I even played a journalist in college as an editor and writer for my campus newspaper. Journalists are smart and hard working. But they don’t do what Molina did to master Rothko. And that difference is of the essence in organized labor in the entertainment industry. A union that is to be effective in this business must grasp that difference.

Of course, that was a live performance and Molina is a member of Actors’ Equity for that play – but the work required of film and TV actors is on the same spectrum. The similarity only highlights the need, if one wants larger unions, to consider eventually a merger between SAG and Equity rather than forcing SAG to swallow all of AFTRA.

Nothing prevents a true performers’ union from working side by side with the CWA, as well as other related organizations, in confronting large multinational media giants like Fox or Disney. But a union that forces actors to submerge their particular needs and interests to a staff and leadership that also has to respond to the needs of journalists will be crippled from the start.

And I have not even considered what a colossal mistake it would be for the AFL-CIO to help bury or submerge the SAG name itself which remains the healthiest brand name in all of organized labor. (Quick, ask your teenage son or daughter if any of their high school classmates dream of getting their “teamster card.”)

Let me be even more specific about the merger problem. The entertainment guilds are about to head into a new round of bargaining, set to start this fall with early opening talks between SAG/AFTRA and the AMPTP. There is little sign, unfortunately, that either SAG or AFTRA are doing anything in particular to increase their leverage in advance of the talks. Critical to actor leverage in bargaining is the articulation of an argument about value – who creates its and who should reap its rewards. Actors are at the heart of the content creation process and of course therefore at the heart of value creation in the industry. To win a fair share of that value actors must convince themselves, the public and then the industry of their right to that fair share.

But the argument about value is different for actors than it is for news and broadcast. Actors and journalists work in entirely different market segments, appeal in different ways to audiences, and generate revenue for the industry differently. While it is conceivable that for some purposes the two groups can come together and increase impact, for the most part it only muddies the attempt to win the value argument.

It is indeed time to reorganize the unions in the entertainment industry, but the path that SAG and AFTRA have tried and failed at twice before is still the wrong one to take.

3 thoughts on “SAG and AFTRA Should Rethink Merger Plans

  1. Stephen Diamond Post author

    The essence of Paul’s comment revolves around the commonality of interests between broadcast journalists and actors. In my view, based on my own experience as a journalist (albeit limited), my extensive work with a wide range of print and broadcast journalists, my own placement of students in broadcast journalism and my discussions with numerous journalists in both print and broadcast about their lives as opposed to the lives of actors, I concluded that both would be better served if broadcast (broadly speaking) went one way (to CWA where print journalists now live alongside NABET) and actors another (into SAG which has by far the brand presence in the industry).

    I would challenge any proponents of simple merger to find a single News at 6 type who says he or she wants to be in the same union as actors. And vice versa. It makes no sense. I think this simple approach to merger is driven by the staff and elected leadership who think it is in their interest.

    If the separate bargaining units within AFTRA could vote I think it would confirm my view. About that we apparently agree but AFTRA leaders won’t allow it.

    For the record, I actually now live in the 21st century – a world in which TV, film and new media are only very slowly beginning to overlap. Although it is richly ironic that AFTRA-philes now adopt the Chicken Little world view of Justine Bateman!

  2. Paul Horn

    Several of my AFTRA/SAG friends (“dual card holders”) and I feel Mr. Diamond is misguided and seemingly ill-informed on many points. I’ve collected some of their individual comments on his column:

    1) Broadcasters don’t all work in news, and that’s just part of the problem with his thinking.

    Commercial actors don’t spend a second “doing research” for their parts, either. A journalist spends far more time. His point in cherry-picking examples to try to show the difference in the two professions is beyond me.

    And, of course, anyone in the CWA because they are a broadcaster is still going to have to be in the other union when they’re asked, as many are across this fine country of ours on a daily basis, to do narrations, commercials, etc. It doesn’t make sense to split off broadcasters into anything but a division of the same active union, where crossover is borderless. That was the basic idea in Consolidation. Which I bet Mr. Diamond voted against. Well, he would, living in the 20th century, as he does.

    The very idea that he refers to “film”, not long for this world, and “TV” which is being usurped as we speak, points to the idea that perhaps his whole model of work is living in the past. I’d be much more interested in hearing an argument such as he’s making if it were rooted in a forward look at “media performing”, which describes with greater breadth what we all do now better even than the term “acting”, which refers to just one facet of what gets our likeness where clients need it and should pay to use it.

    2) SAG’s ‘Q’ rating within the industry has been so severely damaged through the past few years by a certain group of SAG members themselves, that I’m not sure it pays anyone to say “Yeah, let’s become THAT!” I’m open to the discussion, but know for a fact that it’s this very thing that has driven producers to the more expensive AFTRA contract. AFTRA is seen as the sane union. I know that has nothing to do with street Q, but it will definitely impact how members vote. And it is currently impacting decisions made throughout the industry.

    3)….

    4) I am of several minds on this. Here they are, in order of strength of conviction:

    a.) I believe that ALL performers should stand together as one union, and whether “actors” like the idea or not, broadcasters are also performers.

    b.) Steve’s argument is disingenuous. He says “there is little in common between the “news and broadcast” side of AFTRA and the actors that populate the television programming that AFTRA represents”. I believe there is a great deal in common, unless you believe actors have certain qualities conferred upon them that somehow give them special consideration in the NLRA.

    c.) I don’t care what the merged union is called. Call it SAG, call it SAG/AFTRA, call it AIMA, call it whatever you want. If SAG wants to maintain their marquee, so be it. It is true that SAG has a far stronger Q rating than AFTRA. Plus, maybe we could get rid of our archaic and homely logo.

    d.) I think the broadcasters should be asked how they feel about the idea of being parsed out into a different union.

    5) (from a broadcast journalist member) I think there may well be some strong arguments for thinking about broadcasters aligning themselves with a union like CWA – given the common interests of NABET and the Newspaper Guild. But, unfortunately, I don’t think this guy makes them – strong arguments, that is.

    He lost me, first, in his third paragraph. I have no idea what he means. I would think that “adding SAG film, TV, and voice over performers” to what is now AFTRA would – in fact – greatly increase “actor power” in a single union. Broadcasters would be a much smaller percentage of the whole.

    Second, he then says that the “difference in the lives” of actors and broadcasters “should be crystal clear.” Again, I don’t know what he’s talking about. What difference? He quotes the NY Times review of Alfred Molina’s preparation to play the role of Mark Rothko. Then he says broadcast journalists “don’t do what Molina did to master Rothko. And that difference is the essence in organized labor in the entertainment industry.” What is he talking about??

    Is he talking about preparation? Has he ever been out with a broadcast journalist covering a story, gathering information, studying the issues, framing questions, choosing video and sound to tell the story? It almost sounds like he’s saying broadcast journalist just don’t work hard enough.

    Couple of other things: Aren’t most actors in SAG, in fact, “background actors?” How many of them read everything they can about a given role – standing in the background in a party scene? Soap opera actors do this? What is this “essence” he’s talking about?

    I should also point out that many, many broadcasters in AFTRA are not journalists. They are disc jockeys and quiz show hosts and comedians (Jay Leno, David Letterman) and talk show hosts. (By the way, have this guy ask Bob Edwards how much preparation he does for an hour long interview.)

    He ends by saying that “actors and journalists work in entirely different market segments, appeal in different ways to audiences, and generate revenue for the industry differently.”

    Again, he ignores the fact that not all broadcasters are journalists. But, further, the same could be said about SAG actors vs.. comedians vs.. dancers vs.. those who work on television vs. those who work in movies for theatrical release vs. DVD only. They all work in “different market segments, appeal in different ways to audiences, and generate revenue for the industry differently.”

    At this point, I still think that the fact that most of us are working for the same huge companies and the fact that we are most us “performers” – whether we’re anchoring the news, appearing on camera in a report from the scene, playing music on the radio, or hosting a talk show – argues strongly for us all being in the same union.

    Our AFTRA President Roberta Reardon often talks about being a “merged media union.” And I think, with all the enormous changes taking place in the media industries, we all belong together. The slogan “The People who Entertain and Inform America” works well for us all.

  3. Nick

    I am hopeful that SAG actors see what is expressed in this article. Too many people fail to see the point made in this article and think being weak means to give into something they do not really need (such as merger). Actors are not broadcasters in any comparison; and broadcasters are not actors (thank God) in contrast. So how in the hell did all this BxxxSxxx happen in the first place? The business of performing is taxing enough to the artist. I hope CWA can absorb the broadcasters. It has had success for its present news people all ready.

Leave a Reply