SAG-AFTRA Cuts Broadcaster Initiation Fees

SAG AFTRA One Union Logo - H 2012

SAG AFTRA One Union Logo - H 2012

The union says the 43% reduction, which affects only Los Angeles and New York, is intended to facilitate organizing, but critics ask why actors don’t get the same break.

The SAG-AFTRA national board cut initiation fees dramatically for Los Angeles and New York broadcasters, replacing the $3,000 fee -- at least on an interim basis -- with a $1,708 initiation charge. New members who are actors and sound recording artists in those markets will continue to be charged $3,000.

The move passed in a voice vote that several sources said was overwhelming. Initiation fees are a one-time charge for new members. Outside L.A. and New York, all new members, including broadcasters, were already paying reduced initiation fees of at most $1,708.

The good news for newsies was a bitter pill for at least some actors, judging by an anonymous letter The Hollywood Reporter received from a self-described board member from a smaller local. The writer said he or she was “angered and disappointed” by the move, which came in the form of an unannounced motion at the union’s national board meeting -- but also felt “too intimidated” to say so publicly.

A union source said the intent of the reduced fees was to facilitate organizing efforts. Although most major local television stations in Los Angeles and New York are owned by the broadcast networks, the two markets also include a variety of other television stations -- including Spanish language, which may be an emerging priority for the union -- as well as radio stations and basic cable networks.

ANALYSIS: Three Big Challenges for the Merged Union

The motion to reduce the fees was introduced by co-secretary-treasurers Amy Aquino and Matt Kimbrough. In passing the motion, the board approved the reduction on an interim basis and directed its finance committee and union staff to develop a longer-term proposal. The next board meeting is in July, but it’s not clear whether the proposal is intended to be ready by then.

Sources said that the only board members to publicly speak against the motion were Anne-Marie Johnson andDavid Jolliffe. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Johnson confirmed that she had called the move a “bait and switch,” since the merger referendum ballot materials had spoken only of the $3,000 fee level.

A source said that Jolliffe queried, “If it’s all of us or none of us, why is it some of us?” That’s a reference to AFTRA leaders’ pre-merger language refusing to allow a merger that encompassed AFTRA’s actors but not its broadcasters. Jolliffe did not respond to requests for comment.

Johnson disputed the union’s rationale for the fee reduction, saying, “There are certainly more struggling nonunion actors ... in Los Angeles and New York.” To enhance organizing, she said, “you should focus on the largest group” of nonunionized workers.

That focus is especially critical, according to Johnson, because of trends in the commercials arena, which accounted for more than 40 percent of SAG actors’ earnings in 2010, the most recent figures available. (AFTRA did not disclose earnings figures.) “The proliferation of nonunion commercials will bring the union down,” Johnson said. Other board members have expressed similar concerns, and they predict difficult negotiations with the advertising industry in the fall.

Another source argued that the fee reduction for Los Angeles and New York broadcasters was unfair when contrasted with the lack of any such accommodation for background actors, who the source pointed out make far less from their work than big-city broadcasters do.

Johnson added that the fee motion “came as a quite a surprise” to her.

For non-board members, news of the reduction has come as a surprise as well. The two-day board meeting ended 10 days ago, but the union’s press release issued May 20 made no mention of the fee reduction, despite noting that another aspect of initiation fees -- pre-existing reduced fees for all members of smaller locals -- had remained unchanged.

That lack of change came notwithstanding a motion to increase the smaller locals’ initiation fees. That drew bitter opposition. The discounted structure was retained, but the author of the letter to THR noted the contrast between the (unsuccessful) attempt to raise initiation fees for actors (and others) in small locals and the successful move to decrease them for broadcasters in the nation’s two largest cities and asked, “Why are [broadcasters] being treated better than actors?”

The reduced broadcaster fee applies to members joining in Los Angeles and New York under “single-unit contracts” -- that is, SAG-AFTRA agreements that are with a single employer, rather than industrywide. Most of the union’s broadcast agreements are single unit, in contrast to the industrywide TV/theatrical agreements more familiar to Hollywood.

The $1,708 figure represents a $108 increase over what new broadcaster members paid to join AFTRA. For actors, the $3,000 figure is an increase over the SAG-only and AFTRA-only figures pre-merger ($2,277 and $1,600, respectively) but a decrease from the combined $3,877 paid by dual cardholders.

None of these changes directly affects most existing members: All previous members of SAG or AFTRA are now members of SAG-AFTRA. They’re not required to pay initiation fees, except that members who join in a smaller local but later obtain jobs in L.A. or New York, or broadcasters who later work under an industrywide agreement, will have to pay the difference between the discounted rate and the full fee.

Discussions of differing treatment of SAG-AFTRA members often focus -- as this one does -- on distinctions between broadcasters and actors. However, this tends to ignore a third major group of SAG-AFTRA members, sound recording artists -- i.e., singers on the songs downloaded from iTunes and elsewhere.

Like broadcast work, sound recording was exclusively under AFTRA jurisdiction, not SAG. However, unlike broadcasters, sound recording artists will not benefit from an initiation fee reduction in Los Angeles and New York.

The reduced initiation fees for broadcasters mirrors their annual dues structure: under the so-called single-unit dues structure, broadcasters in the new union pay somewhat more than they did under AFTRA but less than actors and sound recording artists do.

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