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Histroy and Structure of the SAG-AFTRA Union

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2169 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is the consolidated union formed in 2012, when the Screen Actors Guild and the Television and Radio Artists guilds merged.  Both unions were originally created in the 1930’s and post-merger their membership consists of over 116,000 active members, with about 80,000 additional lapsed or suspended members (members can honorably withdraw from the union if not actively working, or be suspended if they do not pay their dues.)  They are a member organization of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and their Mission Statement is:

“SAG-AFTRA is committed to organizing all work done under our jurisdictions; negotiating the best wages, working conditions, and health and pension benefits; preserving and expanding members’ work opportunities; vigorously enforcing our contracts; and protecting members against unauthorized use of their work.”

The dues structure for SAG-AFTRA is somewhat unique, as they require a minimum semi-annual dues payment (the amount is determined by the locale in which the member lives/works), but a performers dues are calculated according to their income.  For example, a performer might owe dues equal to 1.85% of their earnings if they made less than $200,000 in a year, while someone who made more than $1,000,000 in a year would be assessed dues at a 0.25% rate.  To hire SAG-AFTRA members, a production must have an executed basic agreement with the Guild, in which they agree to mandated union terms.  SAG-AFTRA performers are expected to only work on these “union or guild job” productions, but this is not heavily enforced by the Guilds.

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One of the more recent large-scale disputes involving SAG-AFTRA was the video game voice actor strike of 2016-2017.  This strike occurred after years of negotiations between the guild and several large video game production companies.  In contention were several issues, primarily pay, but also safe treatment of workers and transparency in hiring.  While the pay rates were contentious, the guild was requesting that voice actors be given residual payments similar to other actors in video or audio media.  The game companies felt that this requirement was unfair to other workers (non-actors) who were working for years on a project without residuals, while voice actors were often working for short time periods.  Regarding safety issues, prior to the strike, voice actors were often working long periods without adequate breaks and were often required to perform vocal “stunts” or other unsafe working condition requirements, which were neither covered by the contract nor indicated prior to hiring.  Additionally, they were hired for roles without being told what the roles were.  As a result, they might portray a character who had previously been played by another actor (perhaps taking someone else’s role at lower pay) or a character role which was possibly offensive or potentially objectional for the actor (needing to use profanity, racist or sexually explicit language are some examples.) (Wilcox, 2016)

In October of 2016, the union went on strike, stopping all union actor work on many video games currently production.  This strike had overwhelming support from union members, with 96% of membership voting to strike. (McNary, 2016) Union members and supporters took part in several picket lines at large video game publishers (Electronic Arts, WB Games, Insomniac Games).  In response, the video game companies launched a website to inform the public and the union members of their side of the issue (Alexander, 2016.) Their stance was that the union had not informed it’s members of the current negotiations and that while the two sides agreed on principles in nearly every case, the details were what was at issue.

 While contentious, the dispute never became litigious and was handled in mediation between both parties.  In September of 2017, SAG-AFTRA and the video game companies agreed to a new contract, effectively putting an end to the strike.  To date this was the longest organized strike in SAG-AFTRA organizational history. Voice actors received more pay, better transparency and safer conditions, but not the residual pay scale they had originally been asking for.  While some members thought this was a sticking point, the agreement was approved by 90% of the voting membership.

Before this the longest strike undertaken by the SAG-AFTRA organization had occurred before the merger but had involved both unions as separative (supportive) agencies.  On May 1, 2000, both SAG and AFTRA supported a walkout/talent strike against the American Association of Advertising Agencies and the Association of National Advertisers (White, 2016).  At the heart of this strike was a decades old policy known as “pay-per-play”, where actors were paid residuals each time their commercial aired.  The advertisers wished to do away with pay-to-play residuals entirely, while the guilds wanted to extend this contract and increase fees, particularly in the booming cable television markets.  The strike lasted over five months, and as with the video game strike, was settled through contract negotiation between the advertisers and union representatives.  SAG-AFTRA used its regular tactics, boycotting commercial shoots in North America, picketing and looking for support from celebrities and corporate entities where they could find it.  In response, the ad agencies avoided pickets, choosing to film commercials in Canada or Europe.  The strike was not widely supported internationally, perhaps because the AFL-CIO was involved and takes an “America first” approach which would not have helped change international rules.  This strike also marked a change in corporate approach, as the advertising agencies were bolstered by the entertainment companies and networks.  The concern at the time was that increases in commercial actor pay would translate into higher cost for larger companies.  As many theatrical actor and write contracts would be ending in 2001, the thought was that if the advertising and entertainment companies gave in to union demands now, they would pay much more in later negotiations as well.  In 2000 they were successful in putting off that concern, but that was not going to be the case for long.

 Perhaps the most well-known strike involving the SAG-AFTRA unions is one which they were not directly a part of.  In November, 2007, the Writers Guild of America East and West (WGAE/WGAW) went on strike, targeting the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.  This affected many large corporations, including CBS, NBC Universal, and movie companies such as Sony, Disney and Warner Bros.  The WGA strike was initiated over pay, primarily over issues surrounding residual payments to writers on the sale of DVD’s and other digital media.  This was seen as a strong issue for the WGA, as they felt they had initially agreed to a less-than-stellar residual deal for the sale of VHS tapes, and as this deal now applied to DVD sales as well, the issue for them was compounded.  Just as importantly for the writers was inclusion of better language in their contract for what would come to be called “New Media.”  As technology improved, media was becoming available through internet downloads, streaming media, on-demand cable channels and other distribution methods which the entertainment companies argued should not be included in residual payment structures. 

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 The WGA and AMPTP attempted to negotiate a new contract for some time before the expiration date of 31 October 2007 but were unsuccessful.  As a result, the WGA agreed to strike.  What makes this strike so interesting from a SAG-AFTRA standpoint is that the SAG-AFTRA has “no-strike” clauses in their contract, meaning that while the contract is in effect they agree not to go on strike.  As such, they could not direct their actors to strike in support of the writers guild efforts.  However, they were seen as huge supporters of the strike, including engaging in picket activities with the WGA (Sag-AFTRA website, 2007).  Many high-profile members of SAG-AFTRA refused to cross picket lines to work, despite the “no strike” clause in their union contracts.  The SAG also boycotted the Golden Globe awards that year.  Another interesting union tactic of note during this strike was the union successfully negotiating interim deals with several individual companies or networks.  As these deals were approved, it put additional pressure on the remaining networks to either come to an agreement or continue to lose money/viewers while the WGA-approved networks could continue to create new content/shows.

 The AFMTP took a number of actions in preparing for and navigating the strike.  Prior to the strike, they attempted to “stockpile” scripts and looked to create more “reality” shows, which did not require a writing staff.  In addition, the strike shut down many productions, causing the studios to lay off many “below the line” workers.  The AFMTP attempted to frame the strike as the writers’ fault, blaming them for the loss of job security in order to put further pressure on the WGA.  The strike was relatively short-lived, lasting only until February of 2008, and was punctuated with on-again/off-again negotiation on both sides.  While publicly raucous, this dispute also did not initially involve legal actions on either side.  The AFMTP did attempt to hold several writers in breach of contract, but these were individual actions, not part of the larger union negotiations.  Nearly a year after the deal was reached, the WGA did file for arbitration, claiming that the AMPTP was not paying New Media residuals as agreed upon.  This was resolved without labor stoppage, though it did take until May of 2011 to take effect.

 The outcome of the dispute could be seen as mixed-bag for both sides.  The WGA received higher rights fees and residuals for some of the New Media they were requesting, but did not win jurisdiction of animation or reality programming, both media-types which were at the time burgeoning and have since grown exponentially.



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