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By 1938, entertainment workers unionized across the coasts with multiple organizations representing workers in film, radio and live performance. With the field expanding and television on the horizon, the Actors Equity Association President Frank Gilmore asked a simple question in a letter: why not form a single union that represents “all performers in the entertainment world”?
This utopic vision, however, would engender bitter and often heated discussions between the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) for the next eighty years. When the two finally merged in 2012, ten years ago on March 30, it seemed somewhat inevitable within the shifting landscapes of longform television, online streaming and other new media ventures.
But with the dust settled, what is most surprising is that it had yet to occur. The problems of union mergers, which often spilled into public disputes about jurisdiction, became a reflection of Hollywood’s own troubled history of politics, cultural hierarchy and technology. As a new set of issues — from streaming residuals to consolidation of industry players — face SAG-AFTRA, mending the divides that once kept these groups apart now seem central to protect the dignity and security of work in an increasingly precarious environment.
SAG and AFRA (AFTRA before the “T” for television) began amongst a push among Hollywood labor to end its long reign as a non-union town. Fueled by the infamous pay cuts by studios and other unfair contract purposes through the years of the Great Depression, the major stars formed SAG in 1933. The question became how it would associate with other unions. With the power of the Wagner Act — which guaranteed workers the right to organize — and other New Deal labor reforms, unions appeared throughout every profession in the industry. The International Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees (IATSE) aimed through the 1930s to actually unite all of Hollywood labor under its umbrella, wielding its power through theater projectionists more than craft workers on set.
But SAG resisted its growing power for both cultural and political aspirations. Many felt the point of the Guild was more for “Actors Only,” representing higher professional goals. More so, they looked suspicious toward IATSE’s alleged mafia ties and felt they should build more traditional political power.
Instead, SAG aligned itself with the Actors Equity Association, a New York union for theatrical performers and soon enough, radio performers. AFRA came soon after as the brainchild of George Heller, a short but energetic stage actor who would become a primary instigator for change throughout the next two decades. In 1937, Heller received approval from both the Actors Equity Association as well as an $18,000 check from SAG to start the radio union. He would pay it back seven-fold as it quickly grew to include news anchors, musicians, and voice actors across the expansive medium. Both unions would operate under the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, an AFL-CIO affiliation that became known as the 4A’s.
After just a year of AFRA’s existence, many suggested merging these groups. One anonymous SAG member suggested during a 1939 meeting that members might discover “the waste, the extravagance and the stupidity of our current operation.” Although a 1940 study suggested it was in the best interest, the coastal divide between SAG in Los Angeles and AFRA in New York made it more convenient to remain separate.
After World War II, one 4A board member noted that unions would face a number of uncertain issues such as “unemployment, expansion, [and] restrictive legislation.” More so, SAG was entering a period of dynamic change within its membership that required AFRA’s cooperation. At the start of the decade, only 800 members worked outside Hollywood. By 1959, 4,200 members — a third of its entire membership — found work elsewhere. SAG even paid AFRA to manage its members’ business in cities like Chicago, Detroit, and Pittsburgh.
But the problem that transformed the profession would be television. Seven different unions would claim some jurisdiction in the emerging medium. Though its mixture of live broadcasting and filmed series could have paved a natural way for these unions to find equal footing, both sides jockeyed for full control. In 1952, the National Labor Review Board divided the baby in half: live television for AFRA (making it AFTRA), filmed television for SAG. This was considered a fair compromise for the time; filmed series only made up around 25 percent of television and many were produced through the studios while New York dominated the landscape through newsrooms and prestigious live drama shows like Philco Television Playhouse and Climax!
However, the divide only hastened the need to create security for its members. For AFTRA, Heller established a pension and welfare plan to protect members during times of insecurity between freelance gigs. SAG’s leaders took a different route. With the Paramount Decrees in 1948 precipitating a drop in film production, SAG infamously formed a waiver for the talent agency Music Corporation of America to both package filmed TV programs and produce them through its subsidiary Screen Gems. As this television boom continued and the introduction of tape instigated a slow end to dramatic live broadcasts, AFTRA’s jurisdiction became limited.
While it was clear within the membership that merger was the best way forward, these jurisdictional fights only fueled animosity. A 1956 white paper produced with SAG president Walter Pidgeon’s approval suggested that AFTRA would use their power after merger to diminish the power of serialized television. When SAG negotiated its first commercial advertising contract in 1958, AFTRA members noted how low the rates were compared to the live commercial deal they had previously bargained; the group went as far to petition the NLRB for jurisdiction of taped shows once again by attacking SAG’s deals.
Under the surface, both unions suffered from a growing anti-union climate. Both organizations would take actions to eliminate communist suspected members through their ranks with limited assistance for those who had been unfairly blacklisted. These were considered necessary at a time in which postwar legislation like the Taft-Hartley Act of 1946 and other bills took aim at dismantling the labor gains achieved through the New Deal. Though a 1960 study commissioned once again pointed to all the values of merger, the two sides still felt each’s internal politics might not suit their own.
At the core was the culture of union leadership. SAG’s board continued to elevate their prestige of the craft with high salaries for organizing while AFTRA ran its chapters entirely on volunteer basis. SAG particularly disowned AFTRA’s policy that allowed any radio worker to pay their way into the union, preferring its policy of strict employment minimums for member inclusion.
But as Hollywood changed, these groups found themselves in necessary alliance. SAG first went on strike in 1960 while AFTRA did so in 1967 — ironically ending just in time to ensure the SAG members could receive their Academy Awards on live broadcast. The two staged a joint strike in 1978 against commercial companies followed by a 1980 strike against studios over VHS sales and TV re-runs. Becoming more aligned in their goals, the sides implemented a three-phase plan to merge over the next decade, and began blurring the lines. Despite being shot on film, AFTRA would gain jurisdiction over soap operas. At the same time, actors such as Charlton Heston, Clint Eastwood, and Frank Sinatra all pushed against proposals made by SAG leader Ed Asner, once again citing that SAG was for Actors Only.
Globalization and digitization in the 1990s should have brought the two together as their formats merged, but it only led toward more strife. Debate emerged over global standards proposed by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) for intellectual property and patents in a digitizing environment. During original negotiations, the United States government actually ceded to the French position that motion picture actors would receive protection for the kinds of moral rights afforded to performers in Europe. But studio pressure led to a revision so no work “in the form of a fixation incorporated in a cinematographic or other audiovisual work” would receive these protections. Since live recordings would be protected, AFTRA pushed for Senate ratification in Washington while SAG would lobby the other way.
Throughout this period, SAG fell into factionalism. Many had been against the incorporation of the Screen Extras Guild in 1992, while others felt SAG President Richard Masur focused too much on political issues like WIPO, merging with AFTRA, and the Clinton healthcare plan. Meanwhile, he ceded to single pay fees in digital and cable contracts and other issues that exacerbated worker precarity. Able to organizing through the internet, a grassroots coalition dissatisfied with SAG called the Performers Alliance aggressively pushed against Masur, and even picketed the SAG office to voice their discontent against the merger.
When merger actually finally went to a vote in 1999, AFTRA members approved the merger by around 67 percent of voters, while SAG voters fell well below the 60 percent threshold at only 47 percent. Later that year, the Alliance’s top members would jostle their way into SAG leadership. Despite more initiatives pushing unification, the voters would keep these unions split after the new millennium. As they had done all the way in the 1930s, the main argument against merger was still that SAG built their union to dignify the craft rather than act as a worker collective.
What finally did it? As merger facilitator Sue Schurman explained in an interview with Rutgers Today, the other side consolidated: “A small number of conglomerates own virtually all the networks and other content creation and distribution channels.” The lines between digital mediums made any kind of jurisdictional fighting arbitrary. When the final vote for merger came in 2012, 82 percent of SAG members and 86 percent of AFTRA members voted to merge.
By 2016, the last element to be merged — the healthcare plans — finalized the marriage. More so, it quickly gave them the power to start making new inroads. In 2017, the SAG-AFTRA would play a critical role into the WIPO’s updated global negotiations that now included China and became known as the “Beijing Treaty.” As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, SAG-AFTRA assisted in developing new work protocols to keep crews safe. Given these recent successes, one wonders what would have been accomplished in terms of rights, compensation, and security had the union made the necessary sacrifices to merge years before.
With continued consolidation, new issues arising in streaming and video games, and safety issues that the IATSE members voiced during their 2021 negotiations, the needs of the merged union are multiplying. Many workers still live in relative precarity, and just as the 1960 study noted, a sizable majority supplement their income elsewhere.
But the now combined SAG-AFTRA has seemingly moved on from centering the cultural distinction of their actors to put worker rights first. Given the growing anti-union landscape created by recent Supreme Court decisions like Janus, Hollywood’s continued union strength provides a road map for other professions—particularly how it provides health insurance, pensions, and other services to what essentially amounts to gig and freelance work between numerous employers. As more professions change to what many call the 1099 economy, SAG-AFTRA can act as historical precedent to build a union that includes both the biggest stars as well as part-time extras.
There’s more energy than ever to change Hollywood. With SAG-AFTRA’s combined strength, the merger might provide a lynchpin to keep the craft sustainable within the industry’s next transformations.
Peter Labuza is a legal historian of Hollywood and creative industries.
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