SAG-AFTRA Moves Toward Halting Music Video Work


The new union says it may issue a Do Not Work order next month, days before talks with the labels resume. The decision on an order will send a signal to studios, commercial producers and even talent agents.

Like a steamy music video, the fight to unionize dancers in that often sweat-infused art form is heating up. Looking to up the tempo of negotiations from 17th century minuet to something a little more cha-cha-cha, SAG-AFTRA on Wednesday advised members that the national board might issue a “Do Not Work Notice” at its May 19-20 meeting.

Although the member advisory didn’t name the targeted employers, the negotiations have been with Sony Music, UMG, Warner, EMI, Disney and their subsidiary labels. A notice, if issued, would not apply to music work by recording artists -- i.e., major pop stars and other singers -- or to recording artists already contractually obligated to do music videos.

The advisory said that the labels “have failed to agree to some of the most basic contract terms,” among them guaranteed access to water and toilet facilities, proper safety protections for hard surface dancing, overtime provisions, health and retirement contributions and standardized rates of pay.

The goal, said the advisory, is “safety and dignity on the job.”

The advisory came as a result of a unanimous recommendation by the union’s executive committee at a meeting during the weekend in New York. Negotiations began in June. Bargaining sessions have been intermittent, with the most recent sessions Jan. 11-12. The next talks are scheduled for May 30-31, a union spokesperson confirmed.

The national board is scheduled to meet and consider the executive committee’s recommendation next month. That timing puts pressure on the board to issue a Do Not Work order. Without one, the union negotiators would walk into talks 10 days later against a backdrop of their own board failing to follow through on the positioning suggested by Wednesday’s notice.

That would risk sending a signal of weakness not only to the record labels but also to the commercial producers -- with whom negotiation start in the fall -- and also the studios and networks. Even talent agents will be watching because of the possibility that their own relationship with the new union will be renegotiated at some point. That prospect arises from the fact that SAG’s deal with the talent agents ended in 2002 while AFTRA’s is still in effect.

All of this means that the newness of the union raises the stakes in negotiations over what will be a small contract if one is achieved.

A middle ground between issuing an immediate Do Not Work order and none at all might be an order with an effective date several weeks in the future, and contingent on failure to reach a deal by that date. That’s an approach that might light a fire under the talks without immediately disrupting work.

In any event, if the national board authorizes an order, it would amount to a music video strike against the labels. According to the member advisory, the order would apply to SAG-AFTRA members working as dancers, singers, choreographers, cameo performers, models, actors and most other talent. Violating a Do Not Work order can lead to discipline, up to and including expulsion from the union.

The executive committee’s recommendation came about a month after the AFTRA national board, meeting March 24, authorized a Do Not Work order. More colorfully, on Jan. 6, dancers picketed in three cities, with a flash mob-style dance-in and rally at Sony Music in Beverly Hills drawing about 150 people.

That action was sponsored by AFTRA and the Dancers’ Alliance, described as “a grass-roots organization dedicated to educating dancers and building solidarity in the dance community.”

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Twitter: @jhandel