SAG-AFTRA Merger: (Series) 1 of 5: History

So here we are again, on the precipice of a vote to perhaps MERGE these two performer unions. My desire, as a vested veteran professional actor in this marketplace for nearly a quarter of a century, as well as the Founder of The Actors’ Network…is to inform, enlighten, offer perspective and educate. I rarely get into recommendations or suggestions…but by the end of my 5-part series on this subject…I just might have to. I have sitting on my desktop the SAG By-Laws, the AFTRA constitution, the Merger Agreement and the Merger Constitution. I assure you it is a 190-pages total…of just exhilarating reading. Ahhh-hem…not. We can get incredibly bogged down attempting to read such things but nonetheless, I do think that IF you have a vote…you should do so. Form your own opinion, make your own decision, but for the love of the future of performer earnings…don’t just do so off of one thing you heard from one person you call a “friend” but can’t remember their name when asked “what is the friend’s name?” (Insert a Hollywood wink and a smile). The first part in this series is just to set the stage for all those reading it be them union, non-union, members of TAN or not. I want this Blog to be read by thousands of actors in and out of Los Angeles…so spread the link around.

SAG was established in 1933, when several of that day’s top movie stars…all walked off the set. AFTRA, wasn’t AFTRA it was AFRA, without the T because we didn’t have television yet…just radio artists and it was established in 1937. Since that day, you can get that there was an absolute internal “class war” with Radio performers versus Movie Stars. And as we got into the inception, of the golden age of TV, the T got added.  At the time, way back in the day, it made sense that SAG organized the work in Primetime television being shot on film because that is what movies were shot on…as well as organizing most of the Commercials also shot on film in a separate negotiation and contract. It made sense that AFTRA organized all of the Television (mostly sit-coms like All in the Family) that were “taped” in front of a live audience and shot on Video-TAPE. Additionally, Daytime TV which was shot on tape was so clearly and distinctly separate from Primetime it made sense to have a separate contract negotiated separately just like Commercials. So there ya go. Now you have the early formations, and evolutions of the construct of the two. When you add in the clear separation of animation and V/O for commercials and film by SAG, and Books on tape for AFTRA, plus the Broadcasters and weather folks being clearly different, you have a perfect marriage of two unions that makes sense to have the “handshake” agreement to always negotiate as a JOINT collective bargaining arrangement. Just peachy.

The lethal blow, historically and in my very strong opinion, that was leading us to the hell and in-fighting we’ve witnessed for the last 20 years is that neither union either out of arrogance or stupidity cared to address the ONCOMING train way before it got to the tunnel WE actors were headed into. That train was and is today, technology. The concept that film would one day be extinct (Kodak recently filed Chapter 11) and that digital would rule the day…was fairly obvious to John Q citizen by the mid-90’s but these two unions…ignored it. I say this because I feel very strongly all of this mess could have been avoided. It could have been managed without threats, law-suits, one side making a deal without the other union’s approval etc. etc. Why? Because the straw that broke inevitability’s back…was the Primetime Television contract negotiation in which AFTRA made a deal with the AMPTP without SAG.

This could have easily been avoided…but when they tell you it ain’t “about the money” I assure you…it’s about the money…and ego. Why in the world would we get to the year 2000, and still have two SEPARATE Primetime contracts with SAG and AFTRA when videotape was clearly extinct as a medium which was always the clear distinction between SAG and AFTRA’s by-laws/constitution and also simply the medium in which the necessity for the two existed? It boggles my mind, but they let it stand and let it stand and let it stand. Stooooopid. So that is where we’ve been and along with other elements I’ll bring up over the next 4 blogs on this subject, how we got here.

This was just a real rough, and simplistic overview of the last 55 years. This is so you just have a foundational way to read the next 4 in this series without being too lost, because yes the inception, beginning and history of ANYTHING…matters. My best always.

9 Comments on “SAG-AFTRA Merger: (Series) 1 of 5: History”

  1. Very concisely put, Mr. West. I look forward to reading Parts 2 – 4. Even though I’m not active in the acting world right now, I maintain a membership and interest in the unions and plan to vote.

  2. Hi Kevin, we met a few years ago when I spoke to your members about the union. At the time I was serving on the Hollywood Board and had a very different view. I appreciate your view on this. Here’s what I am saying on this subject. My best always, Brad

    The biggest question that never gets answered in the merger debate is… ” If not a merger, then what should we do?” How are we going to make the changes that must be made, in order to fix the huge problems we have?

    I was on the Hollywood SAG Board during the last merger attempt, siding with those who opposed it and they are still using all the same fear based arguments about what “bad things” could happen, but the truth is, nobody knows what will happen and won’t until we actually merge.

    My mistake, when I sided with those who succeeded in shooting merger down last time, was that I assumed they had a better plan. Here we are years later and the fact is, nothing that was shot down then is better now… only worse. The Merger, The Agency Agreement and a number of other issues are worse now, because the same people who shot em down, did not have any feasible alternative plans. I take some responsibility in that, because I was a small part of that outcome.

    All I know now, in 20/20 hindsight, is that we have wasted so much money, time and effort in this process and things have only gotten worse. The members that continue to oppose this merger will not hear the question… “If Not a Merger… then what?” If they do hear it then their ideas are ludicrous, like choosing SAG and killing AFTRA or futile ideas about lawsuits and sabotage.

    If these same people would use their intelligence instead of their vindictive nature, they might spend their time and money trying to figure out how to make this merger happen in a better way. They might look at how to compromise and improve our plan for bringing our unions together and serving the membership. They might stop screaming into the wind and find ways to use diplomacy to create a better vision for our future, instead of poking holes in everything that they fear.

    We have no other feasible solution and it’s time to make the merger a reality, so that we can move into the future. The problems of having two unions competing for the same contracts has hurt many actors like myself and have created unwanted and unnecessary animosity.

    Many benefits will come right away and I have faith that given the ability and time, we can work towards both a combined health and pension plan. It won’t come easy or quickly, but it will come. More importantly, we will finally have the opportunity to find a way to deal with all our issues with dignity, compassion and with a new invigorated vision for the future of actors. The animosity that continues to keep us stuck is a poison and it will never help us… not ever. Brad Blaisdell

  3. Not a member right now Kevin, but great start on an important subject. If you will send me more installments on this merger topic, I would appreciate it.

  4. Thank you Kevin…I know you a long time…and you are a good man who cares…and one who has been loyal and helpful to many…and I thank you for that historic friendship I have shared…so let me say ….this is a tough subject…and NO you are right it can not be spoken of in a sentence or two so …forgive me…but I will share in hopes it helps…Inspire and educate …whether I am right or wrong time will tell…it always does…so here we go…..Yes…it’s about the MONEY…and if it were about the members as it was stated in the historic “We Take Care of Our Own…” Mission Statement of SAG then there would still be a SENIOR CARE CENTER IN CALABASSAS…which the New Mission is WE TAKE CARE OF THE UNION LEADERS of a GUILD? UNION? HELLO? UNIONS HAVE 100% or at least 90%? of it’s members working Teachers …bus Drivers ….Nurses etc?…NOT 99% unemployed oh 95% ? anyway…Back to the subject at hand…the Merger? The reality is MOVIES STARS created the GUILD…and there was a time it was simple. To be a Movie STAR you needed other Great Actors to tell the story with you and if they didn’t have enough MONEY to care for themselves or their families then you would be on the set ALONE. As they would need to wait tables and become a garbage collector or a Taxi Driver. So it wasn’t about Commercials back then…not yet anyway…unless it was a RADIO spot…then it would be AFRA as KEVIN stated… It wasn’t about TV then it would be AFTRA …it was a small group of MOVIE STAR Actors organizing to make it possible to have other less known but needed Actors in their films who were not going to be paid SLAVE labor salaries so they could work. AND that on the END they would NOT BE forgotten. And they called it a GUILD…made of the BEST SO…that time came and went. If you asked me to get to the point FAST. And not go over the many CRAZY times and Corruption. It would be simple. But it is not…much has happened and there are details and realities that need to be re-THUNK…and changed…I suggest… All Actors would start out in a Group for FREE simply register online to a STUDIO SYSTEM shared and paid for by the STUDIOS…sign up would be called ENTRY LEVEL WORK MEMBER. So you upload pics and a DEMO REEL. No AGENT NO MANAGER, YET. The Studio has Casting staff that looks for these entry level Actors and brings you in. Just like they do on YOUTUBE only now you are Registered and they know you are looking for WORK as an ACTOR STARTING OUT. No 3 Voucher (secret deal made by Producers to get their Family and friends in the GUILD( IT’S NOT A UNION -remember UNIONS have workers that work ALL THE TIME) But a system that allows anyone to be seen, For FREE. Now. the second step is they want you they offer you a Year contract to work on a series of projects. And you make a deal with them. Correct you make a deal. They make an offer of work and you make a deal. Or you do not accept it and move on. Meaning yes. Every-deal is based on SELF VALUE. And if the Studio is interested they will pay you what they offer or what you suggest but it will be you making that first deal. ALSO VOICE OVER WORK and COMMERCIAL companies would ACCESS your info…No different then getting a job anywhere where there is no UNION. So now you are WORKING. Next level. You become a FAVORITE of the Directors and they start to see in you something special and tell you they are going to offer you level 2. You will be featured in a Project and now after proving yourself and getting paid on many projects what you agreed to now you can be a member of PAG. The Professional Actors Guild, Meaning you will be a Professional Actor who gets certain deals with more benefits then you had negotiating alone. So…this PAG reps everything known from the past…RADIO…Film…then TV…and Present Internet and whatever is in the future. So there is no crazy UNIONS…there is PAG. A GUILD with the best who moved up through the ENTRY Level system that was FREE. And there is only a 2% payment WHEN YOU WORK. No initiation fees and no dues. You have already proven your value. So when you work PAG gets a fee to apply towards the pension and benefits program for Senior DAYS ahead. And the Producers GUILD continues the agreement to contribute. The reality is the so called CARE SYSTEM they were doing FAILED. Because it was corrupt. Had the leaders been paid a Standard salary and not more then the President of the UNITED STATES then there would have always been enough MONEY to keep the care system going. So…there will be a Computer staff and a Rotating leadership of only the Millionaire members to donate time for free. Or 1 dollar a year. And to make sure the computer team has everything working. The reality is then you focus on MARKETING…and promote your success…and as far as Pension and Senior care? Yes. If it is run without corruption. and No if it means 99% don’t work and pay for the few who will benefit. Remember you get nothing if you do not acquire 10 years of professional work to be a VESTED member. Ask how many members of SAG reach 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and then 10 never happens…go ahead do the math. So the initiation fee is a LOTTERY fee. Because it guarantees no long term help. And the truth is. The BOARD MEMBERS have made LEADERSHIP positions that pay themselves more money then they ever earned as a ACTOR (maybe a few exceptions) but $450,000 each…and 100% benefits and for what? To shut down the ‘WE TAKE CARE OF OUR OWN?” No …the average $50,000,000 they collect each year…in dues is never shared with the members…what do they do with all the MONEY? The bottom line is…cut back the process. Apply the COMPUTER TECHNOLOGY to get rid of all the MONEY being spent on all kinds of CRAZY things. Also when you reach Millionaire success then what? Then you simply move on. Correct. you do not need a guild …then you need a Agent or Manager or both to run your Carer on that exclusive level of MILLIONS per film? Donate to PAG? If you so desire. But PAG should be simple. And guess what…you have all your residual payments sent to you or a lawyer. Or Agent or Manager whatever you approve. PAG never handles your residual payments. Oh yeah…there is a fee you will pay each year. To PMMM (Pay Me My Money) it’s a High tech monitoring system that receives all the updates on anything you have been in. Separate from PAG. So…right now the leaders are trying to simply keep their HIGH pay and benefits and make you think without them YOU WILL NEVER WORK…LOLOLOLO LOLOLOL…You are not working now or LATER…except the Tenie weenie few…LOLOLOL NEED THEM? SHIT if you could simply just go to an Audition and get a job without all the Hoopla and Payola and Bullshit ola you would find out if you have what it takes to make a living in a business that is a DREAM…and a great one. SO Kevin …Blessings …and I really wish the NEW Actors would ask more about what is really going on and not just say hey as long as I become rich and famous I could care less about the Stupid UNION… AGAIN there is that WORD…UNION???? It’s a GUILD…right? LOLOLOL

  5. Thank you Kevin, I have been a member of AFTRA and SAG for over 15 years on the east coast and always sort felt out of the loop with LA based SAG members.Information is so vital and again Thank You. I am now based in LA and I am in total favor of merger. But no matter how one votes,they should be armed with the information. Don Watson

  6. Thank you Kevin for doing this blog, and just before what should be one of the most important, highly respected & celebrated events in entertainment history.

    I say that because I see people, especially in this country, starting to realize and understand what they thought was of importance to them are not in alignment with the rest of the world.

    It saddens me that the old establishment of our profession are very reluctant to embrace GROWTH, therefor hindering and stifling the mindset of our brightest and most talented of our generation. This in my opinion STOPS anyone from being bold and wanting to explore their craft without fear or prejudice from their peers, wether financially or creatively … Take Meryl Streep for example, 10+ years ago her american peers (european actors appreciated her love of technique) would mock her by calling her ‘Accent Queen and refer to her acting as fake’ ….. BUT NOW, no one would be caught dead saying those things … WTF????

    Yes, that example is not directly to do with the issue of the two union’s merging BUT again it is. There is a destructive mindset within the two unions of ‘taking what the other has’, until this is resolved and we can share, then we will truly see a REAL MERGER OF GREAT MINDS & STRENGTH OF CHARACTER.

    I have ALWAYS been of the opinion of one representation for each profession with a governing body that overseas the running of it in a fair and democratic way. In all honesty it should have been forced 30+ years ago when they had brought the matter up of a merger along with forcing the AEA and any other ‘Actors’ unions to join with them and be known as the “Actors Guild”.

    Actors are by at large their own worst enemy with tooooooo much ego, irrelevant materialistic values, no business sense (or common sense) and a blatant lack of understanding and respect for the craft of story telling.

    In the meantime I’m happy to settle with:

    * The two companies forming
    * ‘In fighting’ continuing
    * Leaks of the unions falling apart
    * Lawsuits left right and centre
    * Actors going ‘Fi-Core’ etc etc etc

    BUT at least it will be ALL under one roof making the Producers, Directors & Writers think twice about screwing with the American actor, just as it’s all smiles on the doorsteps of the above unions, WE KNOW that there is all sorts of ‘tom foolery’ going on in their house!

    That’s how British Equity works, it’s not the best BUT as I say it’s under one roof.

    Keep me posted x

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