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A “New” Entertainment Union - And a Possible Name
AFTRA is interested in merger with the Screen Actors Guild, but not if the effort is going to fail again. So we learn from an article appearing in the just-mailed Spring 2010 issue of AFTRA Magazine. The union makes clear that any such effort will encompass all of its members, and emphasizes that the goal is “creating one media and entertainment union for all actors, performers and broadcast journalists.”
SAG reacted favorably, with guild president Ken Howard remarking in an email to me, “I’m delighted to see AFTRA’s leadership speak out forcefully about something that I and other SAG leaders so strongly support. Joining SAG and AFTRA to create a single union is essential to performers’ maximizing their power. It’s undoubtedly an idea whose time has come.”
(AFTRA, for the non-laborites among my readers, is the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and AFTRA share jurisdiction over scripted television programming.)
So far, nothing unexpected. But what is new is the letter’s proposal that the new union have “a structure where no single city or no single category of member—actor, recording artist or broadcaster—is able to unilaterally impose its will on everyone else.” That description could just as well apply to AFTRA’s own current structure. SAG’s governance is quite different, and a simple majority of the Hollywood branch can indeed “unilaterally impose its will on everyone else,” or at least stalemate the rest of the union, absent a Herculean effort to the contrary.
Adopting a more AFTRA-like structure is bound to sit poorly with SAG’s Hollywood-based Membership First Faction. That’s the same stale group that has previously disparaged AFTRA and that caused the year-long contract impasse that cost SAG dearly. However, even non-MF Hollywood members will need to be convinced that a sacrifice in control will bring greater dividends in the form of national cross-category unity. It may not be an easy task.
Meanwhile, also new is the article’s conceptualization of the effort not as merger, but as the creation of “A New Union for a New World,” in the words of the article title. What this means is actually not particularly different from merger, but the point is to underscore the need to create a merged union to increase labor’s power in an age of proliferating platforms.
The article stresses that power should be the main goal, with other factors – elimination of duplicative dues, easing the ability to qualify for pension and health plans, and reduction of redundant administrative costs – treated as secondary. I wouldn’t downplay those secondary advantages quite as much as the article does, but the point is clear.
What’s less obvious from the piece is how creation of a new, merged union would increase union leverage. The article, styled as an open letter from AFTRA elected leadership (Roberta Reardon, Bob Edwards, Ron Morgan, Matthew Kimbrough and Lainie Cooke), notes that on the management side, many of the same companies are the employers of actors, other performers and broadcast journalists. (This is less true of another category of AFTRA member, musicians, since only one of the big four labels, Sony Music, is owned by an audiovisual company.)
However, this is less significant than it seems. The fly in the ointment is that since these different categories are employed under different contracts, each with no-strike clauses, joint strikes would be impossible. Does that mean that the letter is no better than a misaddressed email?
Not necessarily. On the contrary, I think the article is on to something if the goal is to create a larger community of interest among the different categories of member. It will, however, take assertive cross education and meetings between different type of workers – in other words, cross-category community building – in order for this to play out. Even if cross-category strikes are impossible, solidarity picketing and informal pressure may not be – just as we saw when SAG supported the Writers Guild during the latter’s strike. That support ultimately was one key to ending the 100 day labor dispute.
Cross education won’t be easy. The article pictures a commonality of interest, citing “salary reductions and added work responsibilities facing broadcasters, declining quotes and reduced work opportunities for actors or record labels’ imposition of ‘360 deals’ on recording artists” as though they were one and the same thing. However, it takes a bit of digging to identify technology as the common factor, since its manifestations are somewhat different – and, thus, so are the implications for labor.
Is technology a strong enough thread out of which to weave a community of interest? After all, technological change affects nurses, autoworkers and lawyers too, yet that doesn’t mean that these groups have enough commonality to foster solidarity between them. Do media workers? Maybe so, but it will take more fleshed out examples to make the point., and hard work to accomplish the goal
Nonetheless, SAG-AFTRA merger is a smart move for media workers. It is, at the least, a step in the direction of creating a larger community of interest and it addresses the dues, pension and health plans, and administrative costs issues. Moreover, it would make it harder for management to play SAG and AFTRA off against each other in negotiations.
The article alludes briefly to “secondary micro-issues” that helped scuttle merger the last two times it was attempted. In my view, those issues deserve a fuller airing well in advance of a merger attempt. The key issues are merger or revision of the health plans, merger of the pension plans, and the name of the new union.
Merger or revision of the health plans seems doable. After all, companies change health plans with some frequency; why can’t two unions, or a new union, change health plans and converge to the same plan? Merger of the pension plans is a more technical issue, and there probably needs to be an au current study done.
The third issue is the one that makes for a nice political football: should the new union be called SAG, AFTRA, AIMA (a proposal during the last merger attempt), or something different? MF partisans have a clear opinion: “You’ll pry my SAG card from my cold, dead hands” seems to be the thinking. Indeed, some probably intend to be buried with their cards.
Extreme or not, there is a reality here: a SAG card is aspirational, whereas an AFTRA card is not. The buff young trainers at my gym sidle up to me and in a whisper beg to learn how they can get their SAG cards. Do I have any in’s with the staff? Is there something I can do? If only the answer were yes, I’d probably have dates every Saturday into eternity. An AFTRA card, in contrast, might be enough for a free workout on a slow day.
Why the difference? Three reasons, probably:
First, as SAG partisans point out, “SAG” is a brand name with greater name recognition, or brand equity, as trademark experts like to say. With due respect to my AFTRA friends, the SAG partisans are right: clearly, more of the general public has heard of SAG than of AFTRA.
Second, “SAG” symbolizes the glamour of the movies; AFTRA symbolizes the technology of TV. Would you rather be 20 feet tall on a movie screen or 20 inches tall on a TV screen? Leave aside the reality that most people watch most movies on home video anyway, movies still have a cachet that television doesn’t.
Third, anyone can get an AFTRA card if they pay the initiation fee. In contrast, SAG is an exclusive club, albeit one with 126,000 members, two-thirds or more of whom don’t work as performers in any given year. Here again, the reality isn’t nearly as seductive as the perception, but so it goes.
So are we stuck in a world where SAG has to discard its name, which I think it will never do, or AFTRA has to accept “SAG” as the name of a merged union, which is also unlikely? No. The solution is easy, and it’s the same approach that was chosen when two rival union federations, the American Federation of Labor (AF of L) and the Congress of International Organizations (CIO) merged in 1955. The name of the merged organization? The American Federation of Labor and Congress of International Organizations – unwieldy, but no one calls it that. They call it the AFL-CIO. Short and simple.
And so would be the obvious equivalent for SAG and AFTRA: “SAG-AFTRA.” It’s short, easy to pronounce – easier than AFTRA-SAG – and it puts the union with the larger membership and more name recognition first. It’s a name that may be the best hope for a merger – or creation of a new union, call it whichever you prefer.
Will a new name require mental adjustment? Of course. No doubt the transformation of the Screen Writers Guild and Television Writers Guild into the Writers Guild of America required adjustment too. Ditto the mergers and name changes that led to the Directors Guild.
But SAG hardliners, ask yourself this: would you rather adjust to a new name, or do you prefer to deny health care to yourself and your family when you split work between the two unions and fail to meet either one’s threshold for coverage? Do you like paying two sets of dues and watching management play ping pong with two unions?
Sunset Boulevard got it wrong: the pictures – and the salaries – are getting smaller. It’s the companies that got bigger. Maybe it’s finally time for the unions to get bigger too.
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