Telemundo Actors Vote to Unionize With SAG-AFTRA

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Courtesy of Telemundo

The vote marks a first in Spanish-language media.

Telemundo actors have voted to unionize with SAG-AFTRA, the union announced Wednesday from Tampa, Fla., a victory that comes against a backdrop of difficult times for unions and for Latinos in the U.S., as well as what the union said was “an aggressive anti-union campaign” by the network, a unit of Comcast and NBC Universal.

The vote tally was 91 to 21 (or 81 percent to 19 percent) out of 148 ballots that were sent out on Feb. 7, union spokespeople said. The union said that about 500 performers per year work on Telemundo’s telenovelas, but voting eligibility was limited to those who had worked at least a certain number of days on such programs last year.

“We want to renormalize the ecosystem in Spanish language media,” SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White said in a statement. “We see this as a watershed moment [that] means that performers in Spanish language media will have a set of protections that reflect established industry standards for the first time.”

“It’s a really strong statement at a time that’s really challenging in our country,” said union president Gabrielle Caerteris. ”United we are stronger.”

The balloting came after a January decision by the National Labor Relations Board that ordered the vote to proceed. The union said that this was the largest union election for actors since the 1950s. The vote marks a significant step forward in the union’s campaign to organize and represent Spanish-speaking performers who — unlike their English-speaking counterparts at sister network NBC — do not receive union salary levels, protections, residuals or union pension and health benefits.

“The SAG-AFTRA vote results are in and the majority of the telenovela performers who voted have chosen the union to represent their interests,” said a Telemundo spokesperson. “While we are disappointed with this result, we remain committed to all of our employees and will move forward with the negotiation process after the election results have been certified by the NLRB. We continue to be dedicated to making Telemundo a great place to work and to Telemundo’s long-term success.”

That negotiation process is unlikely to lead to complete parity between Spanish-language performers and their English-speaking counterparts. For instance, English-language day players in primetime scripted shows are paid a minimum of $933 under the SAG-AFTRA agreement, whereas rates of $180-$300 per day are common at Telemundo, according to sources. That’s a lot of ground to bridge, but the union does have lower rates for soap operas, public television, low-budget movies and the like, so it’s likely that a Telemundo deal would be a compromise that reflects aspects of the company’s business model, such as lower production budgets than primetime programs produced for sister networks like NBC.

In Los Angeles, some may wonder why there had to be a vote at all. Studios, networks and production companies in English-language media usually accept SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction as a matter of course — when was the last time a new NBC scripted series declined to sign with the union? — but Telemundo’s refusal to do so meant that the ballot procedure was SAG-AFTRA’s only avenue.

According to the NLRB decision, the actors eligible to vote were “all ‘elenco estelar’ (main cast actors), including ‘protagonistas’ (protagonists), ‘antagonistas’ (antagonists), and ‘principales’ (supporting actors), guest stars, ‘figurantes’ (day players), singers, dancers, and stunt persons on scripted dramatic programing produced in the United States.”

Those persons had to have worked in such positions on at least 15 working days during a one-year period, or for at least five working days during a one-year period on at least two productions. Excluded were “all other employees, background performers (extras), stunt coordinators, puppeteers, airline pilots, guard and supervisors.”

“I’m thrilled,” said Katie Barberi, who has acted on Telemundo shows and in English-language media. “I’m over the moon. This is a huge day for both [unions and Latinos].”

Telemundo has surged in prime-time ratings largely due to the success of its telenovelas and other scripted dramatic programming and the network now bills itself as a top four TV network in the US.

March 8, 1 p.m.: Updated with quotes and additional details.