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Actors speak out in light of upcoming SAG/AFTRA election

Twitch TV roundtable panelists (left to right) Frances Fisher, Esai Morales David Jolliffe and Jane Austin spoke about issues in preparation for this year’s SAG-AFTRA election, which they are all candidates in. Barbara Burke/22nd Century Media
Barbara Burke, Freelance Reporter
9:10 am PDT August 16, 2017

It’s not the ideal battle of the stars.

As the elections concerning the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, better known as SAG-AFTRA, rage on, stars of all backgrounds gathered at a Malibu home July 31 in support of the Membership First slate. 

The slate opposes the Unite for Strength slate for leadership of the organization’s 165,000 members. 

Ballots for the national, Los Angeles and New York elections were sent to members on July 25 and are due by Aug. 24. Those results will determine who will serve both in key offices, including president, secretary-treasurer and most board positions. In October, members will hold the SAG-AFTRA convention, where they will elect an executive vice president and seven vice presidents.  

SAG and AFTRA merged five years ago and the marriage has not been the most harmonious. 

Esai Morales, a current board member best known for his role in “NYPD Blue,” faces incumbent Gabrielle Carteris for the presidency. Carteris was named to serve out the term of Ken Howard in April 2016 after Howard died. Stuntman Peter Antico is running as an independent. 

At the Malibu event, Morales, stuntwoman Jane Austin (candidate for National Secretary-Treasury), actress Frances Fisher (a local board candidate), and actor David Jolliffe (candidate for LA Vice President) sat down for a roundtable discussion aired live by Twitch TV to discuss key election issues. Others spoke in support of the Membership First slate. 

Morales said his key focus is on issues that matter to emerging actors. He expressed concern that the general public might at first think that the union is composed only of “entitled brats who are whining about benefits.” He emphasized that many members of the union do not make the wages made by superstars, and actors work long, hard hours while raising families, just like other American workers. 

“Principal actors should stand up for back-up actors,” Morales said. “Without a union creating floors and minimum wages, we could actually have actors having to pay to act; that is not tenable. We stand on the shoulders of the likes of James Cagney. You need an organized work force. An actor should be able to create a career so he can practice his creative craft.”

“The biggest challenge is to successfully execute an election while remembering that those we’re running against are going to be among the people whose support you need when the time comes to step up,” Morales added. “I do believe that there is a lot of talent in all sectors of this union. I just have to find it and convince the people to work together for the greater good, putting politics aside. We have done as much as we could to put our own political expediency aside to support our negotiating team, and unfortunately, we had more faith in their abilities to secure a better contract than they did. So, I just hope to one day we can reach across the aisle and inspire the best in all of us and that we are able to put past wounds aside and really explore how much we can accomplish with greater resolve.” 

Key bones of contention between the two competing factions focus on actors being paid for travel time, disparities between retirement benefits for SAG and AFTRA members and staff members for the union, pension credits needed for vesting, and residual gains in basic and pay cable (HBO and Showtime). 

Austin, a stuntwoman, vociferously objected to the shorter turnaround times on travel provisions. 

“They should not have negotiated away from the portal-to-portal provision,” she said. “When you have actors and grips exhausted, that is when accidents happen.”

Other seasoned actors expressed concern about emerging actors’ rights. 

“I have always focused on organizing in solidarity with the most vulnerable actors,” said Martin Sheen, a candidate for both the local and national boards. “It is disturbing that some of their pay is so low that it is ludicrous. It should not always be just about the bottom line. Our function as union members is to protect actors when they get a job.” 

Other members of film production agreed.

“We need to protect middle class performers, especially in the environment today where there is so much wage compression,” Austin said. “Television shows used to be 22 episodes and we took 12 days to shoot them. Now, they’re often compressed to 13 episodes and the shooting only takes nine days to shoot them. That affects actors’ financial situations heavily.”

Morales, Austin, Sheen and other members of Membership First shared frustrations concerning how actors were treated after the merger. 

“When the unions of SAG and AFTRA united, the producers saw an opportunity to weaken SAG,” Sheen said. “The ballast was so very heavy that it damn near sank us. AFTRA leadership did not understand the needs of SAG members.”

Morales focused on how senior members of SAG who retired early were treated.

“Three hundred early retirees, senior members with pre-existing chronic catastrophic conditions were suddenly dropped from the Health Plan due to cited financial concerns,” Morales said. “This is something many of us resisted. When those retirees were summarily thrown off the health plan with only 90 days notice, it was Membership First people who took the cause and helped those people through a terrible situation.”    

Jolliffe, who has negotiated on behalf of actors for 20 years, shares Morales and Sheen’s frustrations. 

“When the other side approaches things with a philosophy that unions always lose a strike, they simply are not correctly postured to effectively negotiate,” he said. “That philosophy doesn’t work for me and certainly doesn’t create the strongest leverage while bargaining.”  

The Membership First faction currently holds 10 seats on the 73-member board. Besides Austin, Morales, Sheen, and Jolliffe, Membership First currently is represented by Patricia Richardson, Ed Asner, Joanna Cassidy, Joe d’Angerio, Frances Fisher, David Jolliffe and Diane Ladd. 

On Aug. 7, SAG-AFTRA members ratified the 2017 Television-Theatrical contracts, approving a three-year contract term for theatrical, prime time and basic cable television production. The contracts were approved by a 75.79 percent majority. Those favoring the deal note that the union secured significant improvements in the residuals rate paid to performers for exhibition of their performances on streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon.

Still, Morales and his slate feel the contracts fall woefully short of meeting the needs of SAG-AFTRA members.

“It’s another sad day for those who fight for better contracts,” Morales said. “This is the result of more than $250,000 of our own dues money being spent to push a deal that further erodes long-held provisions that protect our members’ wages and safety. 

“At this point, I can’t help but feel like our union has, in effect, become another arm of management by neglecting to provide an accurate accounting of the true costs and therefore a better understanding of what we’ve been coerced to ratify. Our leaders are continuing a debilitating trend of insuring industry peace at our members’ expense.”