Book Update


The Birth of SAG-AFTRA
A New Union Emerges From a Tough Merger Fight


When the first edition of The New Business of Acting was published in the fall of 2010, the actor unions SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) were in, as I discuss in Chapter 7 (“Unions and Actors”), a state basic neutrality. Both sides came away scorched from a highly charged battled in 2009 to attempt to merge. There had never been a marriage, but what transpired in 2009 was shameful; if it had been a divorce, it would have been an ugly one, with both parties walking away unsatisfied and feeling as if they had been cheated out of a win each felt they were owed.

As with a nasty break up of any kind, time can heal most wounds. At some eventual point, it is time to get back in the saddle and try to, once again, find the perfect match.

By January 2012, both AFTRA and SAG were ready to reveal to its members what few knew, that behind the scenes a team comprised of leaders from both unions had been meeting to discuss and carve out a merger plan that the majority of both unions’s members would find attractive enough to consider and then vote “yes” on.

When SAG and AFTRA went public with the plan, as in 2009 (and during the several other past attempts to merge), a faction of mostly high profile SAG members were quick to mount their own campaign against it. The group, led by Martin Sheen, Ed Asner and Valerie Harper, went so far as to file a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for an injunction to prevent the votes being taken and counted.

Despite the lawsuit being filed, in February 2012 ballots were mailed to all of the members of both unions who were eligible to vote.

On March 28, 2012, U.S. District Judge James Otero denied the motion for injunction. "Voting in favor of merger may or may not be in the best interest of the majority of union members. But the decision, for better or worse, belongs to the members -- not to plaintiffs, and certainly not to the court," the Judge wrote in the decision.

The secret ballot process continued, giving SAG and AFTRA-eligible voters until 10:00AM on Friday, March 30, 2012 to return their votes.

On Friday, March 30, 2012, at approximately 1:40PM, Pacific time, history was made when a substantial majority of both SAG and AFTRA members voted to, after many exhaustive and divisive attempts, merge the two unions into one new entity to serve all actors, broadcasters and other talent with the formation of a new, stronger union. It was a good day in the (new) business of acting.

Of the approximately 55,000 SAG members who participated in the referendum, an overwhelming 82% voted in favor of the merger; of the approximately 37,500 AFTRA members who participated in the process, an equally overwhelming 86% of the members voted to say “I do” with their colleagues at Screen Actors Guild.

The passage of the referendum sends a strong message to everyone who works in the industry that it is, indeed, a new landscape.

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What is the impact of this merger and what might it mean for new-to-the-business and current “working” actors?

If you were a member of both SAG and AFTRA before the merger (approximately 50,000 performers were), you instantly became a member of the new union. Instead of paying dues twice a year to two separate entities, you will now receive one dues statement twice a year (one the period from May 1 through October 31; the second to cover the period from November 1 through April 30).

If you were a member of just one of the unions, either SAG or AFTRA, with the merger you instantly became a member of the new SAG-AFTRA, now enabling you to be able to work in all SAG-AFTRA sanction projects without limitation and without the need to meet any additional qualifications (i.e., three vouchers from union-sanctioned extra work, evoking Taft-Hartley or the offer of a principal role). It is former AFTRA (only) members who are the biggest winners in this merger.

Now for the fiscal news, prior single union members now have to swallow the financial pill of larger dues to their new union. Base dues are set at $198 annually for the first three years of SAG-AFTRA’s operation. After that, base dues will automatically increase two percent annually, unless the union’s National Board determines that a lesser amount – or no increase – will be imposed.

For actors who were not members of either SAG or AFRA before the merger, the news is mixed.

With the former AFTRA being a union anyone could join for the cost admission (this gaining the opportunity to work in former AFTRA-sanction projects), getting into the new SAG-AFTRA will present the same challenges as getting membership in the former SAG: You will have to earn it.

The SAG-AFTRA Constitution states that membership (in the new union) will be available to those individuals who have worked, are working or are about to work in a job or project that is covered by a former AFTRA or former SAG collective bargaining agreement (many of these contracts are still in effect from the individual union’s previous negotiations) or in a job or project that is covered (or will be covered) by the new SAG-AFTRA collective bargaining agreement. As with the former SAG, you can still qualify for SAG-AFTRA membership by working as a background actor in a union-sanctioned production.

Having met the qualifications for membership, the initiation fee into SAG-AFTRA is, as of this writing, $3,000. Like the base dues, the initiation fee will remain at $3,000 for the first three years of the new union. After that date, like the base dues, the initiation fee will increase two percent each year, unless the union’s National Board determines that a lesser amount – or no increase – is appropriate.

In addition to your initiation fee and base dues, like all members of the former AFTRA and SAG, now current members of SAG-AFTRA, you will also have to pay work dues twice a year, based on a percentage of your union work earnings. As the new union emerged, those dues were published as 1.575 percent of all earnings up to $500,000.

Those are the facts and the figures. Now let’s add some perspective on the new landscape.

Yes, there is a new union. Yes, all union performers will benefit from a stronger, single union negotiating the contracts under which they will work. It does not, however, mean that when first launching your career (as a nonunion actor) you should rush into union membership.

The old rules still apply. Joining the union too early can be detrimental for the growth and development of your career, particularly in the early stages of your journey. The goal is (still) to accumulate both experience and credits – and nonunion work can be a great place to get those opportunities.

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For additional information about the new SAG-AFTRA, visit the organization’s website at