Friday, September 30, 2011

AFTRA, SAG, Joining, Merger and Politics

How to join the Screen Actors Guild and/or AFTRA and the road to potential creation of a new entertainment-information industry union.. click on "read more" below to find out more.

Joining AFTRA

"The people who entertain and inform the world."

Actors wishing to join the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists may do so by clicking the membership option on-line. For those living in Nevada I recommend joining through the Arizona Chapter. The cost to initially join will be less, and while the site does not specify Nevada after Arizona, the Phoenix office has jurisdiction over most AFTRA work performed in Las Vegas. AFTRA has an open door membership, so you do not need to have vouchers or Taft-Hartleys to join. You may pay by credit card on-line or mail a certified check of money order to the Phoenix office.


AFTRA - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. Represents radio artists and news broadcasters, and, in earlier times, television performers. In more recent times, however, television performers may be represented by either AFTRA or SAG, depending on the producer's contract. Discussions about merging the two organizations have been ongoing for several decades, however its defeat in the late 1990’s may make such a merger difficult for decades to com; recent Television & Film and Commercial Contracts have been jointly negotiated. AFTRA represents newscasters, sportscasters, disc jockeys, talk hosts, announcers, on camera actors, video background performers, voice artists, dancers, singers, musicians, recording artists, music video talent, interactive technology performers, a small segment of television and radio producers, a small segment of electronic technicians and professionals in very specific writing fields. While SAG's membership moves rapidly from production to production and employer to employer, much of AFTRA's membership hold regular ongoing jobs, most notably the on air broadcast talent who work fixed hours five or six days a week for a specific employer. AFTRA is structured as both a local and national union. AFTRA locals have widely divergent responsibilities, jurisdictions, dues and sometimes structures. They generate and manage their own treasuries while contributing to the national fund.

About SAG

The Screen Actors Guild is the primary union for performers in motion picture and television productions. Shares jurisdiction with the American Federation of Radio and Television Artist on in joint contracts including ‘theatrical” and  “commercial”. SAG is a national union, with a structure that centers on elected officers and a national board of directors. Local branches assist in providing services to local members and recommending any local contracts or variations from national contracts to the national board. All funds are distributed through the national office, with general budgets and appropriate specific request administered by the elected treasurer and voted on by the National Board of Directors. Today the Guild represents a wide range of “on camera” and “voice over” talent (on film, on video and digital media), including actors, background extras, dancers, singers, stunt performers, puppeteers, “foley” and sound effects workers.   Formed as a performers union for the motion picture industry, as video evolved as a production format, organization of the video media extended Guild contracts jointly with sister union AFTRA to actors and performers on video and in interactive projects.

SAG Eligible means an actor has fulfilled the requirements to join the Screen Actors Guild. This term, while in regular use, is considered to be a violation of copyright and trademark by SAG, and therefore discouraged from use on résumé’s or with agents. The reality is that the use of SAG Eligible just tells employers that an actor is not serous enough about their craft to join SAG. Non-union producers love these people because it gives them a qualified performer base without having to pay a living wage, commit to residuals, in any way protect the actors image or performance and without needing to meet SAG and AFTRA working condition safety requirements.

Personal Preference

If you qualify and live in Nevada I would strongly advise joining the Screen Actors Guild as a priority over AFTRA. My reasons are simple:

1. There is more SAG work in Nevada than AFTRA
2. SAG is my parent union
3. I serve on the National Board of Directors of SAG
4. SAG has a Nevada Branch (there is no Nevada Chapter of AFTRA)
5. SAG's Nevada Branch will welcome your membership.
6. If you join AFTRA, I recommend you contact the Phoenix Office
7. Note that the cost of joining either union will go up each year, so do not wait.

Joining SAG

As with AFTRA, there a initiation fee differences based on geography. The rule of thumb is that where there is more work to be had, usually in union security states, the larger "national rate" applies.

Since Nevada is a Right to Work state with primarily location work from production companies from out of state, Nevada's rate to join is lower. When and if you work in a state with a higher initiation rate, you will be billed the difference between the local rate and the national rate as of the date you joined. 

There is no such thing as a "national member" rate. You are a national member wherever and whenever you join, regardless of the rate for your geography. All members are full members of the Guild. Also there is no prestige in a "Hollywood card" as membership numbers and union cards are national and do not show which branch, division or geography you joined or or are affiliated with.

Unlike AFTRA there is no easy on-line way to join, but one is in the works. You may do so by mail with a certified check or money order, or join in person at a SAG office. You must meet membership criteria, currently working one day with a role or three days a a background artist under contract, which for non-union talent means Taft-Hartley's.

There are financing plans in place in the form of payments plans for select geographic areas (including Nevada) where works is less common, and through low cost loans from the AFTRA-SAG Credit Union (credit worthy applicants only).

For additional information contact Steve Clinton at There is a reduced initiation fee structure for Nevada, with a payment plan. Ask Mr. Clinton for full details.

The politics of the unions

Current information:

In April 2011, the Screen Actors National Board of Directors created a Guild Task Force to work directly with AFTRA counterparts to develop formal merger plan for approval by National Boards in January 2012, with a membership vote no later than April, 2012. The structure of the planned new union is not known at this time.

Information from February of 2010, so dated up to next red lettering, but still valid to review and understand:

AFTRA's National Board meets this coming weekend. SAGWATCH reports that on the agenda is the upcoming joint contract negotiations and the potential of bring SAG and AFTRA closer together on a return track to Phase I of merger or something similar. Links take you on the history, from the SAGWATCH perspective, of how the two unions shifted apart and efforts to bring them together again. There are also links to the history of merger. Remember that SAGWATCH is a blog and not a news organization. Opinion, language use and perspective reflect its editors and sponsors.

UPDATE: Joint commercial, television and theatrical (film), and other contracts have been negotiated and approved by membership, with a few select contract remaining single union or sub-groups within the unions (2/18/11). There remain areas to be discussed between the unions.

Current and historic information:

Both unions appear on the fast track, as of early 2011, to forming a new union that merges the two. Presidents of both unions are on listening tours across the nation and legal has begun the framework on potential "merger" in the interests of members of both unions. Time tables range from next January to up to three years way, depending on who you talk with.

An attempt to merge the unions under an umbrella union failed a few years back. AFTRA and SAG both voted to merge, however the SAG vote fell just short of the required 60% of the membership for it to become a reality. In the the time since AFTRA has gone its own way on select contracts, while negotiating jointly on others. Both sides blame the other for this action and resulting tensions. One very real result is that almost 100% of television pilots now fall under AFTRA contacts instead of SAG joint contracts, a practice known as "raiding", although AFTRA defends it noting that most pilots are now down digitally and on tape, therefore not falling unilaterally under SAG's historic film based organizing. Both unions now compete for for the revenue of new memberships and dues based on work under contract.

Affiliation with the AFL-CIO is another matter. AFTRA broke from SAG in jointly affiliating through the Four A's, to become a direct AFL-CIO union. Both are AFL-CIO, but the difference in approach may give AFTRA a greater advantage in gaining AFL-CIO support should there be a conflict between the unions.

Merger and Advice on joining.

Merger may be the intent of many members of both boards, but it remains in the future, if at all. Therefore it is best to join both unions, meaning two sets of dues, two sets of pension and health payments, and split loyalties when issues conflict.

These loyalties are often seen at the boardroom level, as elected membership in either board cannot be denied on the basis of affiliation with or member in another unions board of directors. Dual card and even dual board members are common on both bodies.

SAGWATCH and the trade publications keep an ongoing account, often based on hear say or strategically placed PR by one side or the other, of the board room squabble in both unions. Media links are located on the right hand column of this blog, along with other links for actors and students.

The truth is often in the middle or perhaps slightly on one side or the other. There is a non-disparagement agreement in place, as referred to in SAGWATCH, and other publications, where the unions and their elected representatives are not suppose to attack each other in the press or publicly. This is for the best as the actual environment is cooperative and most disputes more personality or political than could be portrayed in an more sensational environment. There are legitimate differences of viewpoint, opinion, policy and perspective which are debated and discussed in the discourse of business.

The cultures are different but the emerging entertainment marketplace, and even the need for the two union compete against to maintain their own operating budgets, pension and health funds and viability, have driven the unions apart. Both unions know that this only benefits management. Members may be split in their opinions but the leadership of both SAG and AFTRA now agree that a merger into a new union is in the best interests of all members. But it will take time, if it can be done at all.

Since the work is sometimes divided, joining both is advantageous. For Nevada the vast majority of the actual work opportunities are covered by being a dues current member of the Screen Actors Guild.

First posted 2-22-09, revised 5-6-2011

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