Actors at the Spanish-language TV network Telemundo have overwhelmingly voted to unionize with SAG-AFTRA, bringing to a close a protracted dispute between Hollywood's largest union and NBCUniversal, which owns the network.
SAG-AFTRA said Wednesday that 81% of eligible voters chose to unionize in a balloting process that began Feb. 7 and lasted four weeks.
Miami-based Telemundo, which was acquired by NBCUniversal in 2001, is the largest employer of Spanish-language performers in the United States, providing work for hundreds of actors on its programs.
The vote marks a victory for SAG-AFTRA, which has been trying for years to extend union benefits to actors who work on the network's popular shows.
"This is a historic moment," said Gabrielle Carteris, president of SAG-AFTRA, in an interview. "Those performers deserve to have protection."
Carteris said the vote demonstrated the power of SAG-AFTRA, which formed in 2012 with the merger of two rival unions and represents about 160,000 individuals.
The union said that a total of 124 individuals submitted anonymous mail-in ballots, with 91 voting in favor of the measure and 21 against it. Twelve ballots were challenged and weren't counted.
The vote was administered by the National Labor Relations Board, which chose the 124 participants based on the amount of time actors have worked on telenovela dramas and other shows.
In the weeks ahead, SAG-AFTRA is expected to sit down with Telemundo to hammer out a collective bargaining contract.
The contract is intended to primarily cover telenovela performers, including actors, guest stars, dancers and stunt workers, according to Susan Davis, a lawyer who represents the union.
Among the points of negotiation will be benefits, overtime pay and residual payments. "We have every reason to be optimistic," said Davis.
A Telemundo spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday that "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."
The spokesperson added: "We continue to be dedicated to making Telemundo a great place to work and to Telemundo's long-term success."
SAG-AFTRA has asserted that Telemundo pays its performers half of what English-language actors earn on other NBCUniversal-owned networks, and that Telemundo doesn't provide its telenovela actors with healthcare, contribute to their pensions or pay standard overtime or residuals.
NBCUniversal has stated that Telemundo would start offering healthcare and retirement benefits to performers starting in 2017, but declined to elaborate.
SAG-AFTRA began its fight with NBCUniversal about 15 years ago and has kept up the pressure as Telemundo has grown in popularity. The union has argued that NBCUniversal maintains a double standard by allowing its English-language performers to unionize while refusing the same right to Spanish-speaking actors.
Last year, the union produced a commercial blasting NBCUniversal. The company refused to air the Spanish-language spot during Telemundo's live broadcast of its popular "Premios Tu Mundo" awards show. Telemundo competes with Univision Communications for Spanish-speaking viewers in the United States. But unlike Telemundo, Univision doesn't produce original scripted dramatic content in the United States, relying instead on a program licensing agreement with Grupo Televisa, with the work covered by the Mexican actors union ANDA.
The recent Telemundo vote means more financial security and power for actors, said Pablo Azar, who has appeared in numerous series on the network, including the recent "La Fan."
"We have a voice now," said the 34-year-old Mexico-born actor who resides in Miami. "We can actually decide how we want our future to be."
Like Hoy San Diego on Facebook
4:20 p.m.: This article was updated to note that SAG-AFTRA has been trying for years to extend union benefits to Telemundo actors.
2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with comments and information from SAG-AFTRA leaders and members.