SAG, AFTRA Surprised by Aging Performers Study

The performers unions question some conclusions of the Columbia University research.

A report issued last week on aging performers' quality of life has lent support to advocates calling for a merger of SAG and AFTRA. But the report also questions the effectiveness of current union structures and has drawn some criticism from the two unions, which provided data used in the study.

Though it stops short of endorsing SAG and AFTRA's current movement toward merger—the two organizations' official merger committees are holding their first joint meeting this weekend—the study's executive summary does note that if the process is successful, "it is possible that other performers' unions will follow suit, thereby allowing performers to use their combined earnings and power across unions, which could curtail administrative costs and provide more equitable and much-needed pensions and benefits."

To illustrate the need for union consolidation, the study notes that one dancer could have to be a member of as many as six different unions to pursue all the work for which he or she might be qualified across various media. This dancer could, in theory, end up paying dues to all six unions but qualifying for health coverage in none, because the work done is spread out over so many different contracts.

"A merger of all unions would obviously obliterate this problem," the study's author, Joan Jeffri, said in an interview. She added that at an event last week in New York announcing the results of the study, "All of the artists in the audience were nodding when I said this. Here they are paying for benefits and not being able to get them."

Jeffri insisted that a merger of SAG and AFTRA is only "a beginning" and that other performers' unions "need to come together in a similar way." Her opinion mirrors the view of some in union leadership that a merged SAG and AFTRA could be in a position to court merger with Actors' Equity Association and other organizations down the road.

But Jeffri also noted that SAG's and AFTRA's pension and health plans are managed separately from the unions. They could, in theory, continue to operate as separate plans even after merger takes place. Though no formal merger plan has yet been drafted, questions about how merger would affect the pension and health plans need to be addressed, according to Jeffri.

"I think people do have concerns, because people don't know what the tradeoffs are in terms of existing benefits," she said. "I certainly can't answer that. I'm not inside the union. But I think there certainly may be concerns that people have."

Affecting Effectiveness

Jeffri's report—titled "Still Kicking: Aging Performing Artists in NYC and LA Metro Areas"—relied on data provided by several performing artists' unions and interviews with 219 performers in New York and 59 in Los Angeles, all ages 62 and older. The study was conducted by the Research Center for Arts and Culture at Columbia University Teachers College.

The report offers some subtle criticism of the unions whose data it cites: "In an industry where over 80 percent (in some unions) of the union population can be unemployed at any given time, the jurisdiction, power, and effectiveness of the unions are questionable." The study notes that union membership in general has declined in recent years and even says that some unnamed performers' unions do not "have accurate data on their members, particularly those over the age of 62."

Adam Moore, SAG's interim national director of affirmative action and diversity, praised the study as "groundbreaking" and emphasized the import of its findings. (The study concludes that the incomes of many senior performers hover near the poverty line, though most enjoy a high degree of satisfaction with their work.) But Moore took some issue with criticism directed at the unions.

"I wouldn't characterize it as questionable," Moore said of the unions' effectiveness. "I understand the frustration of performers when, as laid out in the study, you could conceivably be a member of three, four, five different unions, make a living earning money as an artist, but because your work may be spread out over multiple unions, your ability to qualify for health care or pension credits in any one of those unions is difficult to come by."

Moore declined to discuss the SAG-AFTRA merger process, but he said the concerns, raised in the study, related to union membership are "very much something that the people in charge of those things in both unions are very much aware of." He added, "I think that there was an intention to wake up some of the union folks who may not necessarily be aware of the ways some of these issues are affecting senior members. They used some pretty strong language in their recommendations, and I think that it will catch people's attention."

Just the Facts

Still, Moore was mostly complimentary of the study, saying that it helps validate SAG's commitment of resources to issues facing senior performers. Ray Bradford, AFTRA's national director for equal employment opportunities, had a more mixed reaction.

"It's a good study, and I'm glad that we contributed to it," Bradford said. "As good as the study is, when push comes to shove, all the data, aside from the statistical data that they received from the performers' unions, were really all anecdotal." He noted, for instance, that roughly half the New York performers interviewed for the study claimed to never have been a victim of age discrimination or any other form of discrimination. "That may be their personal, anecdotal feeling," he said, "but I may have information that they may not, and that information comes from looking at a full year's or two years' worth of data telling me who actually got the jobs and who actually was let in the door to be able to at least have a crack at the jobs."

Bradford's department recently completed a review of all the roles in broadcast and cable scripted programs covered by AFTRA since 2009—close to 1,400 roles in 103 shows—and found that only 12 percent of those roles went to women over age 40. For men, the number was 24 percent. Numbers such as these are what Bradford claims are missing from the study.

"For the purpose of AFTRA—and this department in particular, the EEO department, that has to fight the fight on behalf of our performers in all the different categories—we need more hard facts," he said. "For my purposes, to fight the good fight, I need the data, and the data is bearing out that for people over 60, even people over 40, and in particular women over 40, they still have a long way to go and there is still discrimination out there."


Twitter: @jhandel