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Ratner v. Fisher: SAG-AFTRA Tensions

Serious disagreements have arisen between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, largely over the issue of securing union coverage for scripted basic-cable shows. Back Stage invited a board member from each union to address the issue.

Aftralogo_2 Union War Puzzling

By Bill Ratner

In 2003, as one of the last merger meetings between SAG and AFTRA was wrapping up, an actor asked an adviser from the AFL-CIO: "What if the merger proposal doesn't fly and it is voted down by the membership?" The adviser answered, "Unless the two unions reconcile their differences, they'll destroy each other."

I thought to myself, "Nah, that can't happen." But since then the virulently anti-merger faction of SAG board members, Membership First, has fired two national executive directors and has found what it seems to want in ex-footballer Doug Allen. In a puzzling warlike stance, Allen is tackling AFTRA, spreading myths in the hopes that -- if they're told often enough -- people will believe them.

Allen authored an 11-page article in the fall 2007 issue of Screen Actor magazine in which he accuses AFTRA of undercutting SAG's basic-cable agreement, poaching shows, and refusing to reveal its basic-cable contracts. A new SAG-promulgated petition echoes these accusations and calls for the modification of Phase One, the agreement under which SAG and AFTRA have negotiated major contracts jointly since 1981.

Some examples:

Myth: AFTRA's contracts covering scripted basic-cable shows undercut the terms set in SAG's basic-cable agreement.

Truth: SAG and AFTRA have shared jurisdiction in scripted basic-cable since the medium's inception in the early 1980s, but the two unions have chosen different approaches to organizing this work. SAG offers a one-size-fits-all contract, regardless of the economics of an individual show. For example, Monk is a SAG-covered basic-cable show with a per-play residual formula. However, it was shot in part in Canada during its first few seasons, benefiting mostly non-SAG Canadian actors. AFTRA has crafted four models for its basic-cable contracts, applicable to a range of production budgets, somewhat like SAG's tiered low-budget film contracts. These AFTRA models are member-negotiated and -ratified agreements frequently using terms shared by both unions. This is not undercutting.

Myth: AFTRA is poaching basic-cable shows, which are SAG's territory.

Truth: You cannot poach what you already own. AFTRA has been organizing scripted basic-cable programs since the 1980s. At a meeting held last year in New York, cable-company representatives said they did not want to solidify an industrywide contract covering basic-cable shows.

Do some of AFTRA's basic-cable deals pay less than an actor would make on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation? Of course. An episode of CSI can have a budget in the millions; an episode of scripted basic-cable is much lower. Do the math. A union performer can make a little less on the back end on an AFTRA basic-cable show shot in the States or can get nothing at all, while, according to AFTRA's data, approximately 50 percent of SAG basic-cable shows are shot in Canada. Also according to AFTRA, 88 percent of AFTRA scripted basic-cable programs are shot in the United States, mostly in Los Angeles.

Myth: AFTRA won't show SAG its basic-cable contracts.

Truth: SAG and AFTRA leadership met repeatedly this year to discuss SAG's intention to modify Phase One, and AFTRA's basic-cable contracts were never on the agenda. AFTRA national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth's stated policy is, "Any and all requests for contracts are being honored." AFTRA president Roberta Reardon recently asked members to report names of staff who refuse member contract requests. During the 2005 basic-cable talks with producers, despite Phase One's joint bargaining mandate, SAG refused to allow AFTRA to join the cable talks as a full partner, relegating AFTRA to an "observer" status.

The current factionalism of SAG's Hollywood board has caused a destructive rift. AFTRA members are beginning to realize that the current SAG leadership has a goal to win the hearts and minds of performers away from AFTRA and ultimately dissolve Phase One, which will cause the unions to negotiate separately with producers and advertisers when both unions' many important contracts expire in 2008.

For the 44,000 dual-cardholding SAG and AFTRA members, it is an ill-advised direction that Membership First, SAG president Alan Rosenberg, and Allen appear to be moving in.

Bill Ratner is a working member of SAG and AFTRA and serves on the national and Los Angeles AFTRA boards.

Saglogo AFTRA Has to Stop It, Period

By Frances Fisher

For 75 years, the Screen Actors Guild has continually raised the bar and secured monetary gains with every new contract, fighting for residuals, which are essential for anyone who dreams of making a living as an actor.

While SAG was successfully negotiating its first increase in live-action, basic-cable residuals in more than 16 years in 2006, AFTRA was negotiating individual contracts with basic-cable shows, offering "free exhibition windows" that allow producers to rerun TV series during the first year of the show without paying actors any residuals. Basic-cable shows that last only one season will never have to pay residuals. SAG basic-cable shows pay a residual for every rerun. Some AFTRA basic-cable shows pay low wages. An actor with five lines or less on an AFTRA-covered show can receive $341. SAG ensures day-players $759 per day under its TV/Theatrical Contract, and payment is not contingent on the number of lines. See contracts at www.sag.org.

WGA members are currently striking over setting new-media residuals. However, AFTRA has negotiated a contract with Nickelodeon that offers free Internet streaming for the next six years. So even if the WGA wins its strike, AFTRA actors on Nickelodeon shows won't get a crack at Internet residuals for the next six years.

AFTRA leaders say they must offer these contracts or the work will go out of the country. Yet AFTRA shows like Kyle XY and The Best Years are shot in Canada. These leaders also say they haven't taken work away from SAG actors but have kept shows from going nonunion. Yet AFTRA has taken over almost all the half-hour comedies and half of the hourlong dramas on basic-cable in time slots formerly filled by SAG shows.

AFTRA leaders say the only solution to the mess they've created is to merge with SAG. If the unions merged now, SAG actors would be giving up half of their union to the current AFTRA board of directors, composed almost entirely of broadcasters, announcers, and voiceover artists. AFTRA board members are listed on www.aftra.org. Check out their credits on the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com); you will find that fewer than half of the board members are on-camera actors and most of them derive much of their income from commercials or voiceover work. When you read something from AFTRA officials, take a moment and ask yourself, "Are these stakeholders with their income on the line, or are they just interested in politics?" AFTRA is my parent union, and this year I ran for its national board -- and was elected -- to increase the small number of film and TV actors among its leadership.

AFTRA board members say they would like to settle jurisdiction issues, yet AFTRA is currently trying to withdraw its membership from the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, the cooperative union organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO that has brought SAG, AFTRA, Actors' Equity, and other performers' unions together to settle disputes since the 1950s.

There is a simple solution. In 2004 animation artists met with AFTRA and demanded that it stop undercutting TV animation contracts. The result? AFTRA and SAG TV animation contracts have been equal ever since. Why hasn't AFTRA stopped undercutting on-camera basic-cable contracts? Because its leaders haven't heard from you, the membership. It's not your fault; you've been kept deliberately in the dark. But dual cardholders have been reading the details of what AFTRA has been doing in the recent Screen Actor magazine issue.

Tell the leaders of both unions that you want AFTRA to equalize contracts with SAG and stop offering free exhibition windows and free Internet streaming. Send an email to [email protected] and cc a copy to sag_ned@sag.org. If you're an actor, SAG is your union; you have the final say in how your contracts are negotiated. But don't forget that AFTRA is your union too. Take it back from those who have forgotten that.

Frances Fisher is a national board member of SAG and a national board member of AFTRA. Her credits include 'Titanic', 'ER', and 'Grey's Anatomy'.

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Frances Fisher may be good at taking off her shirt in cheap films, but she's brain dead when it comes to unions. She thinks shouting strike is going to get us somewhere, instead of negotiating good contracts.

She thinks that because SAG's rates are higher, that means more money. The exact opposite is true, that's why SAG is in the red $6.5 million in its new proposed budget. The work has all gone to Canada and elsewhere because SAG doesn't understand that the market place has changed.

Fisher's boob baring won't make the difference. She's a dinosaur, howling as she gets sucked into the tar pits of Membership First stupidity.

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