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:


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.