are performance unions getting weaker?


Talking about the strength of unions in the voice over business can be a bit like talking about politics and religion at a family gathering. You’re pretty sure a fight could break out but you’re just not sure what’s going to get broken.

In the past 24 hours, news of the day and a film festival I attended brought this issue to the fore.

This item from today’s New York Daily News:

Unions representing film and television actors will negotiate separately with producers in upcoming contract talks after board members of the TV actors union voted Saturday to sever a long-standing agreement between the two guilds.

The vote by the board of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists came hours before a meeting with the Screen Actors Guild and just three months before the expiration of the contract covering movies and prime-time shows.

Despite a sometimes rocky 27-year relationship the unions had shown recent signs of peace as they prepared for the upcoming talks.

The two groups had hoped at Saturday’s meeting to set a start date for negotiations. Instead of discussing strategies the sides swapped accusations.

I’m all about synergy and combinations of effort to save time and money. A merger between SAG and AFTRA should simply happen for the good of all and no one should be allowed to go home until it’s done. The above makes me think the strength of those unions will take a hit in negotiations because of their dispute. Regardless of the reasons (many of which could be valid on either side) their positions at the bargaining table will be weakened.

At the conclusion of the Buffalo Niagara Film Festival (what, you never heard of it?) there was a great presentation by New York City casting director Judy Henderson. Along with everyone in attendance, I wanted to learn more about the casting business she ran and how I might work with her.

The bottom line is all the work she casts is union. Her markets are New York, Los Angeles and some national commercial work. It’s all union work.

Not knowing yesterday about the SAG-AFTRA tiff, I asked what I prefaced as possibly an impertinent (though that was not the intent of the question). Could she gauge the strengths of the unions based on her current experience? She was unabashedly pro-union (being a member of the new Casting Directors union) and said the unions were strong and necessary. Given the examples she offered and the markets she primarily works in, I fully understood and respected her position.

The reason I asked the question is because in many markets outside New York and LA, my non-union work is skyrocketing. That’s an observation, nothing scientific about it but I keep getting a sense that business owners and some production companies cannot be bothered with the expense and paper trail forced upon them by the unions. Of course, the reasons performing unions were needed in the first place was because wages and conditions companies offered were abysmal. So can there be a happy medium?

I’m really not for one side or the other. You really have only two choices…if you’re not in the union at some level, you are non-union. I am non-union. For many performers, a union membership is very valuable. That’s cool. It is strictly a business decision…one that on any other day could change for either group.

My choice was made because ultimately it gives me more opportunity to work than union work does. Its also less complicated than tracking the union work and payment rules. Certainly the down side is that there is opportunity in some cases to make much more money as a union performer. But for my business, I can currently, consistently make more money as a non-union voiceover.

Were I based in New York City or Los Angeles, I would likely be a union performer as those are primarily union towns and most of the work they do goes around the country. That said I have done work in both cities as a non-union performer.

What does dishearten me is how the two main performance unions cannot either get along or better yet merge into one stronger union. The politics of it all, the turf battles and what seem to be egos in this battle must certainly be a turnoff for other observers besides me.

I hope it gets worked out amicably for my performing peers.

Whatever your opinions, I look forward to a civil discussion here 🙂

California voice talent Bobbin Beam also writes on her blog about this situation, from the perspective of a union member.

4 Responses to “are performance unions getting weaker?”

  1. There is another dynamic at work here, namely that the ubiquity of the internet BYPASSES the big distribution houses (Warner, Universal, NBC,CBS, ABC) and puts ownership of a ‘property’ into the hands of the actual creators: writers, filmographers, ACTUAL CREATIVE PEOPLE…

    This is starting to bite into both the established (read: ‘Hollywood’) production houses AND the creators’ collective guilds, adding to the angst and discomfort all around.

    Nevertheless, for nimble little mammals, there’s a world of stories whispering to be told, and then bought or PPV’d over the Line!

    Great blog. Ah’ll be bock!

  2. Karridin,

    Thanks for visiting. Technology has dissolved the status quo, hasn’t it?

    Best always,
    – Peter

  3. Yeah I’ve been following this closely.
    I see this as a power play by AFTRA. If they can undercut SAG’s offerings to the table, it’s more likely production will want to use more AFTRA contracts. They could be trying to level the field as SAG far and away out earns AFTRA.
    I’m trying to pin down a close friend of mine who sits on the SAG board for a comment, but they are being understandably tight lipped. I’m also very interested in how AFTRA-reformists like David Sobolov will react to this.
    It seems to be in the guild’s best interest (being more competitive), but I think it’ll come at the expensive of AFTRA and dual card holding actors.

    I think there will always be a need for collective bargaining, guilds, and unions. The market place can’t be the only decider or production will have too much power and actors will have too little protection. I just find these recent developments distasteful, and I have to wonder how much farther we can de-value performance before there’s any point in keeping the current guilds around.

    I have more info on my blog (over several posts) about how we’ve come to this dissolution of Phase One, but I don’t wanna go spamming comments.

  4. SAG (not screen actors guild 😉

    I agree that nobody wins but the dual members never really have won.

    They don’t need to pay twice for the same service. Merge them together. Dissenters on either side should be given wedgies until they agree!

    Let us know if you hear any inside scoop. Thanks.

    Best always,
    – Peter