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SAG-AFTRA and Actors Equity are fighting: What is this union beef about?

SAG-AFTRA headquarters on Wilshire Boulevard
West Coast-based SAG-AFTRA is in a fight over turf with East Coast rival Actors Equity.
(Tommaso Boddi / WireImage)

West Coast-East Coast battles can be fierce — even when it comes to organized labor.

Hollywood’s biggest union, SAG-AFTRA, recently called on the AFL-CIO to mediate a months-long dispute with Actors’ Equity Assn., known for representing actors who work in live theater productions.

The fight — which centers on whether SAG-AFTRA has exclusive jurisdiction over filmed theater productions — marks an unusually bitter schism between two sister unions that normally work side by side against employers.

Who is involved?

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On one side is SAG-AFTRA, the Los Angeles-based union that represents 160,0000 actors and other performers nationwide and traces its history back to the 1930s. In 2012, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists ended their own bitter and longstanding rivalry to form SAG-AFTRA.

New York-based Actors’ Equity Assn. (AEA), which was founded in 1913, represents more than 51,000 professional singers, actors, dancers and stage managers. Like SAG-AFTRA, it belongs to the AFL-CIO. It has contracts with theater groups and other employers from Broadway to the West Coast, as well as theme parks like Disney World and casinos, for example.

The fight between the two unions spilled into the public domain earlier this month when SAG-AFTRA said AEA was questioning its jurisdiction over contracts for the streaming of plays and other stage productions. Actors’ Equity argued that the larger union was making it harder for its members to work and access benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Tony Award nominations for a season shortened by the pandemic are cold comfort to all of the out-of-work artists who won’t return to Broadway before May.

How did we get here?

The pandemic has put the entertainment industry under massive strain, shuttering productions and forcing unions to cut staff as member dues dwindle. SAG-AFTRA has laid off about 170 staffers since the outbreak started.

With Broadway expected to keep theaters closed until spring 2021, the coronavirus outbreak has forced thousands of venues to shut down and forced actors and theater personnel across the country out of work. One bright spot, however, has been the ability of some theater productions to stream or broadcast their performances as a way to make money without in-theater audiences.

The Independent Shakespeare Co., instead of performing to an audience in Griffith Park for its 10th year this summer, livestreamed “Romeo and Juliet” from an indoor stage in Atwater Village, with recordings available for watching on-demand.

But SAG-AFTRA and AEA find themselves at loggerheads over who gets to represent workers in these performances.

What are they fighting about?

This is basically a dispute over turf.

SAG-AFTRA believes that it has jurisdiction to represent and bargain for actors involved in filmed performances — including those on theater stages.

However, during the pandemic, Actors’ Equity has used temporary agreements with theater groups and other employers allowing their members to keep working while stages are closed. The contracts enable performers to continue receiving the weekly salaries they had been getting pre-pandemic. AEA said this generated $2.5 million in earnings for workers, as well as $670,000 in contributions to their health fund.

The rub: AEA contends SAG-AFTRA has been undercutting it by directly signing up around 60 productions of live performances. That means actors have to belong to SAG-AFTRA in order work on those productions.

SAG-AFTRA disputes the charge, arguing that for decades it has covered recorded versions of Broadway shows such as “Hamilton,” televised special events like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade, and the various late-night shows that are recorded on stage in front of an audience. All Broadway shows are covered by both SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity.

Why it matters for workers

Actors’ Equity estimates SAG-AFTRA’s alleged raid on its partners has led to $600,000 in lost earnings for its members who cannot work for those employers and $154,000 in lost contributions to the union’s health fund.

Some actors are members of both unions, although stage managers are only represented by Actors’ Equity. The two unions also have different pay for members and thresholds to meet before they can access benefits.

Actors’ Equity argues that it’s harder for their members to qualify for health insurance benefits when they work under SAG-AFTRA. It takes about 11 weeks for a member to earn six months of health insurance benefits under Equity’s contract. In contrast, SAG-AFTRA bases its access to benefits on annual income thresholds of $35,020 for its top plan and $18,040 for a secondary health plan.

“Theatrical stage managers and actors who would otherwise be earning health weeks on an Equity contract will likely never meet the threshold of earnings to qualify for health insurance under SAG-AFTRA,” read one petition by stage managers against SAG-AFTRA’s actions.

SAG-AFTRA said it offered a waiver to allow Equity members to perform this filmed work under their union contract, within certain restrictions because of the impact of the pandemic. The waiver, running until April next year, excludes performances for major streaming platforms like Netflix and HBO Max.

The waiver also requires AEA to acknowledge SAG-AFTRA has jurisdiction over these filmed events — something it has refused to do.

“Our members are growing increasingly frustrated and angry about the number of contracts that they thought would be on Equity contracts, with significantly higher wages and positions for stage managers and meaningful health benefits, but have instead gone to SAG-AFTRA,” said Actors’ Equity president Kate Shindle. “All we have ever asked was for SAG-AFTRA to back off of our employers during the pandemic.”

What’s the latest?

In early October, SAG-AFTRA believed it was close to agreement over a waiver, but talks broke down after Actors’ Equity leadership asserted that the rival union was “poaching their jurisdiction,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer for SAG-AFTRA.

Last weekend, SAG-AFTRA called on the AFL-CIO to mediate a dispute with AEA over what rights it has when it comes to filmed content from theater stages.

“The dispute pertains to AEA’s infringement of SAG-AFTRA’s long-held, exclusive jurisdiction over recorded media and live broadcast media, and, since its inception, over streamed and digitally transmitted media as well, including in live theater productions,” wrote SAG-AFTRA leaders Gabrielle Carteris and David White to AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka.


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