A Modest Update to A Modest Proposal for SAG/AFTRA

Updates to the May 13th

Response to SAG/AFTRA

In The Aftermath of the

Commercial Agents’ Meeting of May 11, 2015

“Best in the Biz” Initiative

 

On the 13th of May, I made a post to this blog that was a reaction to a meeting held between commercial talent agents and staff from SAG/AFTRA two days previously. In my post, I expressed frustration and a great deal of cynicism about the Union’s new initiative: “The Best in the Biz” and specifically, the Union’s plan of action during Phase 1 of that initiative. That post can be found here:

http://www.accesstalent.com/blog/2015/5/13/a-modest-proposal-for-sagaftra

This post begins with a point by point examination of some of my rhetoric in that original post, then segues into some new thoughts on commercial talent representation. In the interim since that first post, I have had the opportunity to speak with Gary Saxe of the New York SAG/AFTRA office and he has done a great deal to allay my impatience, frustration and cynicism.

First, I would like to re-state something that I hope was very clear in my first post: I fully support the concept of collective bargaining and I see the actors’ unions as important and necessary. I also would like to restate that the practice of working “off the card” is damaging to both the individual performer and the entire membership. I respectfully request that this be borne foremost in mind when reviewing my first post or reading what is to follow here.

Gary Saxe’s notes regarding my post of 13 May were extensive; our conversation lasted over two hours. He had objections to some of my characterizations of events; he disputed some points I had presented as facts, and he admitted that there may have been some material that was less than well-presented in the commercial agents’ meeting with SAG/AFTRA of May 11, 2015.

His very first objection was my characterization of the Union’s tactical approach to the membership, their agents and the casting community as being “an aggressive list of demands”. He gently pointed out to me that they are simply looking for some cooperation. It is clear that he is looking for some support here and I recognize that my tone was unduly aggrieved.

We then discussed a specific list of statements I had made, some of which do deserve some mitigation, even if they do not merit outright retraction. As Gary responded to my points one by one, I feel it’s appropriate to discuss them in the same way:

 

“Union work is shit-work”

The first of my assertions was that the Union “gets 16.8 per cent of your fee” when work is done under the Union’s jurisdiction. Gary pointed out to me that that figure is the Pension and Health amount that accrues to the actor’s own account and benefit.

That is a fair point to call me on. After all, the costs of health care insurance have gone up considerably over the past decade since the time that the P&H contribution was roughly half what it is now. No one needs to explain that to a small-business owner who is trying to provide health insurance to his staff on the basis of an unchanged ten percent commission structure. And, although agents benefit from the Union’s annual Cost of Living adjustments in the contracts, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that the costs of doing business in New York (health insurance being one) seem to be outstripping the COLA by a substantial amount. Perhaps my frustration was due to some ancillary factors.

Gary also pointed out that, although the non-Union “rates” I cited may seem respectable, there are many more instances of non-Union fees being de minimus when compared to rates negotiated in Union-administered contracts. To this, I have no clear-cut response, except to say that I am not advocating or even suggesting that a Union performer go back to the minor leagues because the rates are good; my entire thesis is that these employers, the ones who can pay Union parity, need to be organized.

 

“Dry up the non-Union talent pool.”

In my conversation with Gary, he took exception with my use of the word “Union pollster” in connection with the reporting of a casting director’s suggestion that the Union “dry up the non-Union” talent pool. Again, I don’t really have a clear-cut response; I’ll gladly entertain alternative suggestions for the word-choice. The fact that the concept was introduced to our meeting with a straight face was and remains ironic.

And I ask to be forgiven for the “Port Authority” hyperbole that I borrowed nearly whole-cloth from Sondheim…conversely, he wasn’t wrong!

 

“Organize Casting Directors and Managers”

In this case, I may have mis-heard the intention. Gary assured me that the Union is simply looking for some understanding and support from CDs and managers. I am, however, still hard-pressed to think of reasons why Casting Directors would want to provide information about their non-Union clients and projects to anybody. As an agent, it’s nearly impossible to extract that from them in the course of working on the projects, Union or non-! And I’m sure that the memories of angry picket–lines at non-Union auditions during the strike of 2000 are painful. The whole conversation is an emotional and professional minefield.

 

“Historical genesis of Financial Core”

I’ve read enough of the case-law on Fi-Core to make my head explode and it’s a small fraction of what’s gone through the courts over the years. The one reference that keeps getting made is the reference to “free speech”, in both a literal and figurative context. Because it’s such a hot-button and even lawyers can’t put a finger on it, I’m not going to try. But one observation I’d like to make is that the Union should not be treating those who have felt Fi-Core as necessary as irredeemable sinners with no way back. There should be a way to “heal” Fi-Core members and a means of bringing them back to the fold, rather that assigning them permanent “post-member” status. By driving them away forever, you assure that the non-Union world will continue to have viable alternatives.

 

“’Best in the Biz’ is consistent with ‘More in the Biz’”

I know I wasn’t the only one in the room to have heard it this way. There was definitely the impression that as many “pre-members” as possible be encouraged to join the Union’s ranks. It is a natural, logical extension of the “pre-member” label being adopted for non-Union performers, as well as a natural inference of the vision of “drying up the non-Union talent pool” discussed earlier. Gary told me that wholesale enlistment was not the point at all. He assured me that it is a select group of top-notch “pre-members” that they are targeting. I am heartened to know that excellence is still the stated aspiration in determining membership.

There was a lot of actual agreement with my reasoning in the closing two pages of my post. The main issue Gary seemed to have was my cynicism and my lack of confidence in the Union’s commitment to the organizing process.

Dear Reader, I have to say that I have been doing this Union representation thing for thirty-three years, and this has historically and consistently been the Achilles’ Heel of SAG and AFTRA. It could be said that, if the Unions had done this work more effectively during the late 80’s and through the 90’s; if they hadn’t completely missed the implications of the cable and internet markets during those markets’ formative years, the strike of 2000 might not have done so much damage to the relationship between the industry and the Union. I’m not salting old wounds or playing the blame-game…I’m giving voice to the frustration of watching a business that used to be collegial, fun and productive become mean, divisive and unrewarding. And you might say that, yes, I’ve grown a little cynical about the Unions’ perennial lack of effectiveness and traction in the hard work of organizing the commercial arena.

But the encouraging nugget here is that Gary Saxe has over a decade’s experience at doing exactly this: organizing performers’ employers.  This is the good news.

 

Now, pay attention, because here’s the part that’s a little tough to wrap your head around:

Perhaps the Union commercial talent agencies have some responsibility to share in these historical shortcomings. By not having non-union departments, have we allowed the market to flourish out of sight? Have we allowed or encouraged the development of a “dark web” of talent and advertisers that exists totally underground and out of our control and knowledge? By turning our backs to it, have we effectively drawn a veil over the non-Union world that hides its activities? A curtain that allows advertisers to quietly slip in and out of sight? By not “owning” the entire process; owning it from Port Authority to the sound stage, are we possibly ceding control of the talent industry as a whole?

If the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) had demanded that no franchised Major League Baseball team have a minor-league team, and if the MLBPA had forbidden minor-league scouting of college talent, might they, too, have lost control over the industry of big-league baseball? Because it’s more than likely that, simply because the MLB teams control the means of access to the MLBPA’s ranks, it remains the “only game in town”. The integration of these two very different platforms (majors vs. minors) is, perforce, locked. A player simply cannot become a member of the Union without having been identified by and having played in the MLB-owned minors first and conversely, there are, to my knowledge, no MLB players who are not members of the MLBPA; if there are exceptions, they only prove the rule.

It therefore stands to reason that, if a talent agency that is a Union supporter has been representing a non-union performer to the non-Union market, the moment that performer is offered a Union contract, she can be properly transitioned to Union status. If, on the other hand, they have, up until that point been (and continue to be) represented by a non-Union agent or manager, the chances of that happening are slim to none, why would the rep want to give up that meal ticket? And, given the financial challenges currently experienced by new members (articulated in my post of May 13), there exists further dis-incentive for qualified “pre-members” to join.

The point to this logic is that SAG/AFTRA’s goal should be to “own” the entire business of persuading, performing and presenting. SAG/AFTRA’s “command and control” should extend downward into the profession in the same way that Major League Baseball’s extends nearly to Little League. Anyone doing work outside the Union’s aegis and jurisdiction should be in that position because SAG/AFTRA will not have them; even working that business sector “at the Union’s pleasure” if you will.

This would be a compelling reason for an advertiser to be a signator and a tool that a Union organizer could wield with authority. Because the answer is still the same: organizing the industry.

And this integrated, locked system is what Gary Saxe needs to take to the advertising industry.

My conversation with Gary was collegial and friendly. He was generous of his time and of his concern and attention to my complaints and accusations. I am grateful to him for being inclusive and not confrontational and at the same time dutifully pointing out his difficulties with some of my claims and my rhetoric.

Thank you, Gary.

 

A Modest Proposal for SAG/AFTRA

Response to SAG/AFTRA

In The Aftermath of the

Commercial Agents’ Meeting of May 11, 2015

“Best in the Biz” Initiative

After a great deal of thought regarding the Commercial Agents’ meeting with SAG/AFTRA on May 11, 2015, I’ve decided to attempt to document some of my personal reactions to the discussion.

Some of what I have to say may be perceived as controversial, however I’d like to provide absolute assurances “up front” that there are two precepts that apply globally to my thinking: First, The value of collective bargaining is not in dispute, and the validity of Union membership as “value-added” is clear. (As someone said at the meeting: “Who doesn’t want to be a member of the Union?”) Second: No agent should ever suggest to a Union member that they consider committing a Rule One violation. It makes the agent a co-conspirator in the actor’s violation of his or her obligation to the Union.

As explained to us at the meeting on May 11th, Phase 1 of SAG/AFTRA’s new initiative: “The Best in the Biz” is a set of tactical maneuvers that comprise an aggressive list of demands made on those most closely allied with the Union. They are spending a great deal of time and energy justifying the strategy that, by making these (mostly misguided) demands on the acting, casting and agent communities, they can “wag the dog” of the entire advertising industry.

This strategy is composed of tactics based upon what I will generously call “magical thinking”, a great deal of which was offered up as substantiated observational fact in the meeting. In the interests of fact-based decision-making, I’d like to start by exploring some of this “magical thinking” and, by extension, cast some new light on “Phase One” of the Union’s initiative.

 

The Magical Thoughts:

“Non-Union work is shit-work”:

This comment was offered up by a SAG/AFTRA employee who is clearly ignorant of the scope of the work being done by non-Union performers and the accompanying pay-scales being offered. $2000 for a year’s “spot” use of a TV commercial is somewhat above Union scale and is not an uncommon offer. If the staff member in question wants to talk about “shit work”, let him go on an audition and then a callback for a Union VO demo where the producer takes two hours to do the demo.

A more cynical view of the reason to call non-Union work “shit work” is the view that SAG/AFTRA doesn’t get 16.8% of your shit when you do it.

 

“Dry up the non-Union talent pool”:

This suggestion was made to a Union pollster by a commercial casting director. The casting director’s irony in suggesting it was promptly missed by the pollster, who dutifully reported it back as a serious suggestion.

“Drying up” the non-Union talent pool is the equivalent of Hercules’ Fifth Labor; no matter how many of them you line up against a wall and shoot today, there are a thousand more getting off the bus at Port Authority tomorrow.

 

“Organize Casting Directors and Managers”:

There is an entire sub-industry extant today which exclusively supports the submission to, and casting of, non-Union advertising work. They have no incentive to fold up their tents and go home. The only chance of “organizing” them to the Union’s interests would be coercion or the threat of physical violence; they will not be persuaded through reason nor “shamed” into giving up their meal ticket. It’s their living and SAG/AFTRA holds no authority.

 

“Organize the on-line non-Union resources”:

This was an incisive challenge posed by one of the Voice Over agents in attendance, addressing the on-line endeavors of Voices.com, Voices 1-2-3, Studio Center, VoiceBank and RealTime Casting (among others). Two of these organizations are based outside the jurisdiction of the United States and one of them is based in Right-to-Work states. The staff member who was left alone at the dais to field this one deflected the question deftly, mumbling something about “taking a look at that”. They might as well “take a look at” holding back the oceans’ tides with bare hands. This ship has sailed.

 

“Historical genesis of ‘Financial Core’”:

Financial Core was glibly dismissed during the meeting as a means to avoid being forced into being a political activist through Union membership. Since SAG/AFTRA is not overtly political, it should not be a factor in member’s decision-making.

My limited research yielded an entirely different reason that it was written into the Taft-Hartley Act. My reading material enumerated concerns about persons being denied the ability to provide for their families by being prohibited from seeking professional employment when the Union shops’ rosters were full.

Seen today by our community as greedy behavior by those who “want it both ways”, “Fi-Core”  was actually born out of a spirit of generosity toward those less-gifted or less-fortunate workers who were forced to take second-tier work. SAG/AFTRA thinks they are scabs to be banished as pariahs. The REAL questions should be: why did they get dragooned into Union membership to begin with? Wouldn’t it have been more charitable to let them practice their crafts in the more-dangerous, less-regulated world of non-organized labor? Who is REALLY the greedy party here?

 

“’Best in the Biz’ is a goal consistent with ‘More in the Biz’”:

The Initiative’s name is: “The Best in the Biz”, and one of the tactics being employed is the inclusion of more performers into the Unions rolls for the sole purpose of excluding them from work on the non-Union side.

These tactics do nothing to increase the amount of Union work, but will likely have the effect of spreading what Union work there is more thinly across a larger Union membership. These tactics certainly will not diminish the amount of non-Union work made available by advertisers who have already made the decision that performers’ ability is not a critical element in their casting choices.

Furthermore, by taking on a tier of member who cannot actually compete against seasoned professionals, the Union will undoubtedly increase the sheer numbers of members needing to cross the line, or go Financial Core, just to provide for themselves and their families by means of the non-Union work they used to do.

 

Fact-Based Reasoning

At this time, it may be a good idea to remind the reader that none of the foregoing is directed at the fundamental premises of collective-bargaining and its concomitant benefits for the Union member. The points discussed above are simply false assumptions that are being used in constructing a strategic approach to a specific problem: how to make more work available to Union performers.

As discussed, increasing the size of the Union membership does nothing to reduce the demand for non-Union performers and will likely increase the actual number of Rule One violations (or Financial Core filings) being committed on an on-going basis. Indeed, the additional side-effect of increasing the membership will be a perceived deterioration of the qualities that make the Union Performer desirable; as lower-tier members are admitted, there is, perforce, less distinction assigned to the superior abilities of Union performers as a class.

SAG/AFTRA should instead, be crafting a brand. This brand should stand for excellence and competence. The hiring of a Union performer should automatically engender a level of confidence that the advertiser’s message will be delivered in an effective, professional way by a performer with experience and a skill set that is honed.

Ergo, the reverse tactic of a mass-membership campaign should be employed. Union membership should be afforded only to those with special abilities to portray or persuade. In this way, the brand: “Best in the Biz” becomes a real banner to wave in front of advertisers, who may be wondering why they should be bothered with the Unions regs and requirements.

But no one is born with these skills. How, then, to develop and/or assess them in the “untouchable” environment of the non-union, “scab” world?

The one unassailable criterion in demonstrating a performer’s fitness to be admitted into the Union’s elite group would therefore be their proven, repeated success in the non-Union market. Successful non-Union performers should not be vilified. On the contrary, they should be wooed and courted by the Union. SAG/AFTRA should be designing a tactic that would deny the non-Union world of its best options, at the same time that it brings viable performers of proven ability into the fold.

Then the question becomes: how would these performers be best identified and then transitioned into the Union’s environment? This question sounds simple, but has several independent aspects that complicate the process: First, if success in the non-Union context has been achieved through a non-Union manager or agent, it becomes inevitable that they have to “jump ship” and abandon the representative that put them on the path. Second, the Union is currently assuming that the performer can afford to abandon what has become, by definition, a healthy income stream, enter a much more competitive arena where dollars are likely harder to come by; plus pay the steep initiation fee to join the Union. The first of these is simply disappointing and ugly, but the second goes directly to providing for self and family. The Unions’ current practices leave new members twisting in the wind, confronted by impossible decisions.

I would like to suggest that it is more than merely incumbent upon SAG/AFTRA, it is its duty and obligation to its membership that it chart a course for performers to navigate this process. An approach any less committed to the nurture of true talent and the well-being of the people who support and represent the excellence and success of the brand is quite simply disrespectful and inadequate. The bargaining is called “collective” because it looks out and provides for all members, not just established ones.

 

Recommendation:

If SAG/AFTRA would like to give their franchised agents a tool with which to sell the positive and superior aspects of Union professionals, could there be a better one than to say to a buyer: “Oh, sorry, I know you’ve been using Joe for quite some time now on a non-Union basis. But he’s Union now. Here’s the number for the signatory department at SAG/AFTRA.”? The risk here, of course, is that the advertiser simply goes to the non-Union market and re-casts.

But what if there were a provisional status for a new member? A kind of apprenticeship period which was emblematical of the true historicity of the Financial Core provision? A special new-member employment contract with no minimums. One which allowed non-Union work to exist, pro-tem, under its aegis? This would give the Union an opportunity to identify and approach non-Union employers, advertisers and producers. It would give the Union time and access to persuade them of the benefits of a signator relationship. It would also provide a smoother transition for a new member into the “big leagues” of working with important industry leaders and first-tier corporations who are trying to get their messages out.

 

Conclusion

Because here is the true responsibility of the Union: organizing industry. No matter how you frame it; no matter what approach you adopt. The duty of the Union’s staff, its members and their representatives, it is to affirm, sell and promote the value of the Union brand to those spending money on production. Historically, this message has been carried to the streets with baseball bats and tire-irons, but this is the 21st century and new forms of persuasion must be employed.

And the fact that the Union’s direction is giving itself a pass on that duty in favor of demanding that its allies and future members solve the problem for them is reprehensible. It is the abdication of duty behind a smokescreen of pretend activism. Activism based on taking advantage of a confused, insecure polity instead of supporting and promoting the collective cause and carrying that message to the world.

Phase 2 of the initiative was dismissed during our discussions. It was somehow deemed “too expensive” to carry an effective message to corporate America about the superior powers of Union performers to deliver an effective corporate message. In the irony of the previous sentence, it is possible to detect a pathway to success.

SAG/AFTRA has among its members the best persuaders in the world. Persuading American industry of that fact should be a self-fulfilling endeavor. And the opportunities provided by new-media are on a price-scale that is comparable to the professional PowerPoint, hi-def video conference presentation we were given on May 11th. Cat videos aside, the social media platforms and content providers are desperate for message-based entertainment.

SAG/AFTRA, all these tools are in your hands. Stop using your influence to limit agents’ rights and dilute the impact and power of your membership. Concentrate on your role: increasing SAG/AFTRA’s market share in the advertising industry.

Chas Cowing

Voice Over Emergency!

Props to client Steve French!

Go ahead! Look up "trouper" in the dictionary! Today, there is likely a picture of Steve French. Steve's wife went into early labor last night (Wednesday) and he went into action: rather than jeopardize his 10 AM booking today, he got on the phone with the producers at 11 PM and recorded the entire piece on his home recording gear, emailing the hi-res files to the agency at midnight! As of this writing (10 AM on Thursday), Steve and his wife are still waiting for the contractions to hit the right rhythms, packed and ready to head to the hospital...but the job, which ships tomorrow morning, is safely tucked away "in the can". Kudos to him and thanks to the Hogarth/J.Walter Thompson team who swung into action!