Monday, March 26, 2012

The Urge to Merge

For several months now, I've been getting emails asking if I was ever going to restart "Parts and Labor." Truthfully, I never really meant to stop writing it. I simply got incredibly busy and fell out of the habit.

As I read these very kind emails from former readers, I told myself that I would know when the time was right to re-launch. Something would eventually happen that would stir me to write the column again. Something I felt strongly about.  Today that something arrived.

You see Tuesday, March 27th is the FINAL day that the members of SAG and AFTRA can mail in their ballots on the proposed merger of the two acting unions. If you are a member of either union and if you’re ballot is still lying around your house somewhere, I beg you to mail it TODAY. And I beg you to vote YES!

Volumes have been written lately about the proposed merger. It has a long history and has failed once before, but that was before the disasterous SAG “Non-Strike” of 2008 that resulted in all future TV work moving to AFTRA. But more on that later.

In an effort to not bore you, I’m going to try to stick to the major points that still seem to be confusing or pissing off the membership. And just to make this a bit more entertaining, I’m going to categorize them a little differently in this column that you are probably used to seeing them. So here goes:


Membership in SAG has always carried a certain prestige since supposedly, not just any old bum off the street could join. You had to have an actual offer of union employment to become a member of the club.  AFTRA, on the other hand, had an open door policy. All you needed was a wad of cash and a dream and you were in. Any clod could do it. This “SAG superiority” issue has always baffled me since SAG is literally filled with thousands of actors who don’t make a living from their acting. And probably never will. Some of them got in through Taft-Hartley or were grandfathered in through one of the other unions or just happened to be standing in the right place at the right time. The idea that the SAG membership is somehow more talented or better trained than AFTRA is sort of silly. Yes, SAG can claim Meryl Streep and Ryan Gossling, but it covers Pamela Anderson and Hulk Hogan. Case closed.


Some SAG diehards are having an issue with the idea of sharing a union with newscasters. I don’t get this. AFTRA has covered both newscasters and actors for approximately 60 years with no serious problems. What’s weird about the “Newcasters aren’t Actors”argument is that SAG, in addition to covering actors, has for years covered background extras, stunt people and (when needed for SAG projects), dancers! What is now being proposed is creating one union to cover ALL ON-CAMERA PERFORMERS. There is nothing complex about this concept. In fact, if in the future we are ever forced into a strike it could be in our best interest to have such a diverse group of talent under one roof.


The current pension plans under both unions are protected under federal law. No one will lose anything. Yes, once merged, the health insurance coverage will eventually change. It will have to and hopefully it will change for the better. The best news is that once we are merged, the "split earnings" issue can be finally be addressed. This gnarly problem hits particularly close to my heart since in 2009, I worked under all three of the actors’ unions: SAG, AFTRA and Actor's Equity (the stage union). I was so happy! I truly thought I'd had a terrific year as a professional actor. That is until I discovered that because my earnings were split between 3 unions -- I had no health insurance! If the purpose of an acting union is to look after the best interest of its members, then that union should understand the basic reality of any actor’s life: You have to take the work where you can get it. You should never be penalized for being lucky.


The writers don’t have two unions. The directors don’t have two unions. Why do the actors?  This wasn’t such a big deal until recently. Up until 2008, AFTRA’s jurisdiction was pretty small and both acting unions always negotiated their contracts together. But then there was a ridiculous break between the two unions in ’08 (Don’t get me started on that!) A window opened for management to play one guild against the other, and in the resulting flurry of insanity all future television work fell into the hands AFTRA. This was definitely a win for the producers’side since AFTRA contracts are cheaper than SAG’s. Sadly, that’s done now and there’s no backing up. I, for one, no longer want to pay dues to two unions when neither is currently doing a great job for me. What’s particularly ironic about the two union system is that the working membership of these both these unions are virtually identical. We’re talking about the exact same people.


Like or not, actors are high-strung people with a certain flare for drama. Much of the membership tends to think of a union as some kind of shining beacon of hope; something to cheer them up when get that sinking feeling that they’ll never work again. But that’s not really what either SAG or AFTRA are about. What needs to be clear here is that these are labor unions; meaning they are here to assist and protect people when they are working. In order to do that, they need to keep up with the times. Personally, I’m delighted that if we merge, the AFTRA open door policy will remain in place. The more the merrier! Those initiation fees will help provide us with revenue that could perhaps be used to hire top-notch I.T. people capable of locating our always hard-to-find foreign residuals. And wouldn’t it be great if we could afford some heavy-hitting labor attorneys who could (if needed) sue the crap out of the six (six!) corporations who now control all available jobs.


Yes, the merger will change some stuff. Not everybody will be happy about that. That’s not just show business, it’s life. It seems to me that most of arguments against merger are mired in nostalgia for the good old days. As we just saw, the automobile industry was saved in part by the UAW acknowledging that the past (glorious though it was) is gone forever. The same wisdom will hold true for actors. There is a not-so-secret battle being waged to wipe out the whole concept of residuals. Yes, we’ve lost a little ground in the past few years, but the war is far from over and we still have quite a few excellent bargaining chips left on the table. What’s needed now is for us to play the game smartly. And in my humble opinion, nothing could be smarter than to consolidate our unions and start trying to better our future.

One thing I can absolutely guarantee is that if we do not merge, nothing will get any better.  This is the smartest idea we've come up with in a long time.  Let's not blow it!   

David Dean Bottrell is a writer and actor based in Los Angeles.