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.



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.



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