AFTRA lays out its vision

A Q&A with Roberta Reardon, Kim Roberts Hedgpeth

NEW YORK -- With all of the conflict surrounding SAG -- its infighting and struggle to reach a new deal with film and television producers -- it's easy to forget that it hasn't been a cakewalk for AFTRA in 2008.

In addition to forging its own primetime broadcast TV deal, AFTRA negotiated or extended five other contracts: sound recordings, non-broadcast industrials, ABC and CBS network news and an interactive agreement (a one-year extension). The primetime contract was particularly difficult, given that onetime ally SAG mounted a campaign, ultimately unsuccessful, to defeat it.

Nevertheless, AFTRA seems much healthier than its estranged sister union. It has none of the infighting that plagues SAG and, coupled with the uncertainty surrounding the guild's TV and film contract, the federation has been able to secure jurisdiction for a significant number of pilots for 2009.

On the cusp of 2009, AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon and national executive director Kim Roberts Hedgpeth talked with THR sister publication Back Stage about the state of their union.

Back Stage: It's been an arduous year -- some of which you expected, some of which you didn't. How did it change you, and what did it mean for AFTRA?

Roberta Reardon: Well, for me it was definitely more arduous than I expected, but what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. It helped focus a lot of our efforts. Ultimately, all of the negotiating dealt with similar issues: new media, a compressing economy, a global economy that is shifting away from old business models. It helped me to think about things in a more cohesive manner. I think it helped AFTRA do the same. Our leadership is much more focused on what our vision is for the future than it was perhaps 18 months ago.

BS: What is that vision?

Reardon: We are the merged media union of the 21st century. We cover the landscape of media and entertainment, from disc jockeys through sound recording artists, reality, game shows and scripted entertainment, and that includes broadcast and cable. What you're seeing is how all of these forms of entertainment go back and forth among platforms. We're always sitting at the same tables with the same employers -- literally, some of the same labor relations people are at all of our negotiating tables. As we look forward, AFTRA is in a very good position to come up with a cohesive approach to entertainment in one union.

Kim Roberts Hedgpeth: Increasingly, with a stressed economy and wages being compressed, the unions' terms and conditions really come to the forefront. We've heard that a lot from actors who say, "I can't get my quote." So, major-role minimums in primetime television were a major focus of negotiations this year. (Major-role players received a 4.3% annual increase for each of the next three years.) The new-media issues cut across sound recordings, television and radio. It was very gratifying -- exhausting, but gratifying -- the way members became engaged with those issues.

BS: Some people in SAG say, "We don't want to merge with AFTRA because AFTRA is so diffuse." If a merger were to happen, how can you safeguard actors' interests while securing the interests of disc jockeys and recording artists?

Reardon: I've said for a long time we no longer live in a world where a performer works in only one venue. My favorite example is Howie Mandel. He works in a business where he doesn't have to hold several cards or pay several sets of dues. He can be supported by one union no matter if he's doing a talk show, a sitcom, a variety show, a one-hour drama or a reality show. Anybody who knows the labor movement knows that dividing workers into smaller and smaller units is counterintuitive in the modern world, because our employers are certainly going in the opposite direction.

Hedgpeth: The challenge is to look more at where your areas of commonalities are. Everybody is concerned about health and pension; everyone is concerned about having a reasonable work day and overtime and turnaround time. Within an organization such as AFTRA, what we have to focus on, whether it's in a merged union or what currently exists, are those areas of commonalities.

BS: A letter from some of the high-profile SAG members who are against a strike said, "None of our friends in the other unions are truly happy with the deals they've made." Is that an accurate description of how you feel about your primetime TV broadcast contract?

Reardon: No. And I would suggest that letter was written about the Screen Actors Guild and the rhetoric about their issues, which has little to do with AFTRA. I think the AFTRA negotiating team and the people who ratified it are very happy with it. That being said, of course you never get everything that you want. Are there things we would have liked strengthened? Absolutely. But given the nature of the industry and where we are at this point, I think it's a terrific deal. It gives wonderful increases, the protections are dramatic, it gives us access to all of the information we need on the deals (concerning new media), and it has a very strong sunset clause. There are people out there who say the sunset clause doesn't mean anything, but they're mistaken. That sunset clause does mean a sunset, and we will re-bargain in three years.

Hedgpeth: That's why having the ability to analyze the data over the next three years is so important.

Reardon: It would be a foolish person to say that we got everything we wanted. But I think it would also be a foolish person to say this was the ideal climate in which to negotiate. A clear business model for new media has not yet emerged and certainly wasn't clear 10 months ago. It is a good deal, and the members support it.

Hedgpeth: There has been so much rhetoric floating around in the last month or two that it's understandable that there's a lot of confusion and misinformation about what's even in the AFTRA agreement. The negotiations resulted in increases, and what's important is, there were no rollbacks and no givebacks in that contract. The negotiating committee was made up of working actors who work those contracts and unanimously recommended it. They felt it was a good and strong deal -- not just in a bad economic time but, if this had been the '90s, it would have been a good and strong deal.

BS: But even an AFTRA defender, Jason Alexander, took a swipe at the AFTRA deal in his letter advocating a "no" vote on strike authorization. He wrote, "I can't send jobs that should be under SAG contracts scurrying over to the even worse conditions of an AFTRA contract." Is that just politics, or do some members really believe that?

Reardon: At the least it's misinformation. Frankly, that's been corrected on Keri Tombazian's blog, because I wrote to her as soon as I saw it. At this point, the AFTRA television agreement is more expensive than the SAG agreement because we finished our deal (and SAG members are working on the old terms). And before this deal, the terms of the AFTRA contract were exactly the same as SAG's. People just don't know some of the facts.

Coming Wednesday: Reardon and Hedgpeth discuss the shrinking economy, the impact of Jay Leno's move to primetime and the merits of a merger with SAG.
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