BONUS CASE 8-4 SAG/AFTRA/WGA: United We Stand (Video Case)


After reading this chapter, you are familiar with the history of labor unions. You have learned the tactics that labor uses to get new benefits from management, and you have learned the tactics that management uses to respond to labor demands. You are also familiar with the various laws that are involved in labor/management disputes. You may get the impression from the media that labor unions are in decline and don’t have much clout any more. In fact, the number of people in labor unions has declined dramatically, but that doesn’t mean that labor unions are not very important today or that they have lost their passion for seeking fair treatment by companies.

We are so accustomed to thinking about labor unions in the auto and steel and related industries that we tend to overlook some truly key industries where labor unions are very important. No doubt you have heard in passing of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists, and the Writers Guild of America. But do you have any idea what issues the membership faces in such unions? Are they the same issues as unions have always had: seniority, pay, benefits, and such? Or are they different somehow?

Many young people dream of becoming a “movie star.” They see the glamour, the excitement, the adulation of the fans, and the huge paychecks. What they don’t see behind the scenes is the constant fight going on to win and keep certain privileges that past actors have won. Back in the 1930s, actors worked unrestricted hours, had no required meal breaks, and had unbreakable seven-year contracts. The producers tried to control who you could marry, what political views to express, and what your morals should be. The Screen Actors Guild won some concessions for the actors in 1937, but the studios pretty much still “owned” their stars. Eventually the stars won the right to better contracts—to the point where independent studios were formed and actors could control their own careers, even demanding a percentage of gross for their pay (Jimmy Stewart in 1950).

Today’s contracts deal with issues like diversity, salary and work conditions, financial assurances, safety considerations, and more. Other issues concern residuals for films shown on TV and reruns. Other contracts have to do with commercials and how the actors will be paid for them. Things are constantly changing for actors. For example, independent film producers in the United States and around the world have different rules and requirements. TV commercials now appear on cell phones. The Screen Actors Guild keeps up with such changes to assure fair treatment of its members.

While SAG is for movie actors, The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists is a performer’s union for actors, radio and TV announcers and newspersons, singers, and others who perform on radio and TV. It negotiates wages and working conditions much like SAG, including health care and pensions. You can imagine negotiating an issue like equal pay for equal work when dealing with highly paid actors and actresses with huge egos.

The Writers Guild of America (WGA) represents writers in the motion picture, broadcast and new media industries. Like actors, writers have issues dealing with pay, benefits, retirement, and so forth. In November 2007, the members of Writers Guild went on strike. The key issue was how new media revenues, such as Internet playbacks, would be distributed. Under previous contracts, the writers received no compensation when one of their shows was watched online.

The more you think about it, the more it will become clear to you that actors and others in the entertainment industry need unions or some other kind of organization to protect them from unfair practices. You can only imagine what treatment actors and others get from independent companies in other countries if they don’t have representation.

Unions today are gathering momentum in industries where the pay is traditionally relatively low and the work hard. That includes nursing, teaching (including college teachers), and other professions (profit, nonprofit, and government).

Discussion questions for BONUS case 8-4

  1. You can imagine what it would be like to try to get a job as an actor in Hollywood. What role might a union play in helping you find a job, negotiate a contract, and otherwise look out for your interests? You might look on the SAG/AFTRA and WGA websites for more information.
  1. What issues might actors, performers, and writers have that other workers may not have?
  1. What is the general attitude in your class toward labor unions? Are there many union workers in your town? Where do you see labor unions gaining strength in the future?

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