After 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.
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.