The Hollywood Lock-Step: Why I Quit The Screen Actors Guild

Okay, that ices it. I was going to keep quiet about this. But they’ve gone and done it now. For roughly thirty years I’ve been a member of the Screen Actors Guild. I remember back when it was rumored that you couldn’t get an agent unless you were in SAG. And if you didn’t have a SAG-franchised agent you couldn’t work. Only problem was – you had to get an acting job to get into SAG. But you couldn’t get and acting gig unless you were already in SAG. Thank God I’d seen the movie ‘CATCH 22’…or the whole thing might not have made any sense to me.

Fortunately, they had a provision around all that, the Taft-Hartley act. If you could talk some producer into hiring you, even though you weren’t yet SAG, you could work. The producer paid some sort of stipend fine (something like $100) and you sign a thing saying you’re joining SAG and you got your card – and everyone was happy. Back then the one-time payment to join was $365 – for me at the time, a small fortune. (I understand the entry fee is in the thousands now.)

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I remember when I got my SAG card in the mail, after I’d gone through the above-mentioned calisthenics. I was ecstatic. This, then, was corroborating proof that I was indeed a professional Actor, capital-A. I had arrived and the world was about to be turned on its ear. Look out, here’s Gary Graham coming to Hollywood to rip it up!

Well, I’ll leave it to the historians to determine the degree to which I’ve ‘ripped it up’, but that began my long association with the venerable Screen Actors Guild. And initially – I loved it. I voted in the elections. I read the high-quality full-color-glossy monthly newsletter. I followed union politics, strike votes, no-strike votes… and of the attendant in-fighting. I was an actor’s union wonk.

So…why, 20 years later, would I quit SAG?

Well, I’ll tell you. Maybe it was the political candidates SAG openly endorsed whom I felt to be out-and-out socialists. Maybe it was the preponderance of expensively produced SAG magazines detailing piles and piles of useless information about regional branch offices and affiliate members coalitions for community action strike committees and affiliate co-sponsor sub-chapter coordination steering committees blah, blah, and man, who cares.

Or maybe it was the latest bundle of residual checks that arrived today (four of ‘em) that, combined, totaled $0.98. Ninety-eight cents, American. Total. Four separate checks!

Now, I’m not a rocket scientist (though I play one on TV)…but it seems to me that an organization that mails out four separate checks in four separate envelopes containing residual checks in the amounts of $0.08, $0.13, $0.62 and $0.06… something is definitely wrong with this picture. Does anyone in this world really need to be sending out checks for six cents? (It gets worse; I recently received a residual check for a penny. A penny. Woo-hoo – time to pah-tay!

Not wanting to tell the guild how to run its business, but -- would it not cost more than ninety-eight cents to send out four separate checks? This vaunted industry organization can’t find a way of holding these sums in a sort of mini-escrow until such time as the mailing thereof at least equals the administrative costs attendant? Would that be too far a stretch of expectation of this former member in good standing? Just a thought.

Which brings me to competition. Our great nation grew and prospered as a result of competition in the free marketplace. The best idea won out, the niftiest invention, the most ingenious labor-saving device, produced for the lowest price took the prize in the cauldron of enterprise. When people are free to choose, they vote with their dollar and the smartest, most industrious win.

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But SAG didn’t want competition. SAG says we’re the only game in town. SAG says you join us and play by our rules or you don’t play. That was, until the 1988 Supreme Court landmark decision, Communication Workers v. Beck, which freed up union members’ options, and after which Charlton Heston contested SAG and Equity’s monopoly on the acting pool; resulting in the little-heard of, and much less talked about ruling known as Financial Core.

Fi-Core for short.

I am often amazed at how few actors have heard about this right-to-work provision.

In a nutshell -- filing Fi-Core allows you as an actor to work union or non-union productions. But you still pay dues. Or at least, you still pay 97% of your previous dues. SAG has determined, by some apparently random criteria that SAG earmarks only 3% to activities other than collective bargaining. (I hope no one was drinking anything while reading that; the spit-take could ruin your keyboard.) Once a SAG actor turns Fi-Core, henceforth you are referred to as a “dues-paying non-member.” (I am not making this up.) You maintain your pension status, your health care benefits, and except for a couple of minor changes, your acting career remains unchanged. The minor changes are these: You must fill out and sign a form stating you are resigning from SAG – the import of which means you can no longer vote in SAG elections and you no longer receive the high-quality, full-color-glossy monthly newsletter. I stopped to pause at that -- deciding whether the six thousand dollars I was about to make acting in a certain G-rated non-union film for four days work would offset that terrible sacrifice.

A full second-and-a-half later, I resigned from SAG and filed Fi-Core. (Call me a whore.)

Now. Am I risking a lot telling you this? Probably. Hollywood is a union town. Union, union, union! To dissent from the lock-step is to paint the Scarlet ‘A’ on your non-union chest. The Leftist cabal that is primarily mainstream Hollywood will assuredly hate me, revile me, detest me, scorn me and want to wrap me in a booger burrito and take turns punting me over the Craft Service table for writing this. But I am about to reveal one of the tightest bits of insider info, one of the most closely guarded, oft-squelched facts in Hollywood:

Financial Core rocks!

SAG does not want you to know that Fi-Core even exists. Facts and information are terrible things to the Left status quo. What would that do for union-unified unity!? If people realized that they had more options, more choices, more rights to work…well it would be disastrous! It would lessen their ability to bargain as a tightly-knit union, it would lessen their impact on contract negotiations, it would…it would… it would reduce their power.

And in this or any other game…it’s all about power.

Once you file, here’s what happens: They try to talk you out of it. They tell you once you quit SAG, that’s it, you’re out. And if you persist, they sigh disparagingly and send you the forms, which you fill out and send back to them. Sometimes they call you back and try again to talk you out of it. But after you politely decline their offer, you actually sign a statement saying you are withdrawing from Screen Actors Guild. (Did I just hear a loud timpani roll?)

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Now, maybe because it took so much for me to get into SAG in the first place… that one gave me quite a pause. But then I thought of my family and how much we needed the money, how much I wanted to do this particular role…and it was a no brainer. Boom, done. Fi-Core. That was maybe eight, nine years ago…and I’ve still managed to work steadily since. Union, non-union…whatever. Features, TV movies, non-union flicks, shorts, pilots, industry promos, web-series…some roles paying quite well, others not so well, some doodly-squat. But each time, I’d take the job for the love of acting, for the diversity and challenge of the role, and for getting to work with people I love.

No regrets…it’s all good.

Where’s my loyalty, you ask? Where’s my sense of honor for the greater good of the Union Brotherhood? Please. My loyalty is to my family. SAG did well in its early years, and I am grateful for various protections under its auspices…but as with all institutions that steadily gain power – power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. The thing has gotten top-heavy in administration, become overtly political and obsessively insisted on merging with other unions to consolidate power (they call it ‘collective bargaining leverage’). And all that has lead to inefficiency, diminished responsiveness, lack of any real representation, demanding too much for too many…and in general generated a malaise of self-importance and short-sighted, special-interest.

And residual checks for a penny.

The unspoken agreement between Fi-Core and SAG is this: Don’t ask, don’t tell. You don’t make trouble for us…and we won’t make trouble for you. You don’t go blabbin’ around town that Fi-Core even exists…and we won’t publicize your name in Hollywood as being anti-union, anti-SAG, anti-American! (Hey, I’ve got nothing against SAG. Just…it’s not for me anymore. Is it like the mafia where you can’t just walk away? Am I not free to choose? Is this not still America?)

It’s funny. All this time I’ve been Fi-Core and completely willing to keep it to myself, not publicize it, live and let live….and the one thing that tips the scales…is getting mailed a residual check for a penny. I’m sorry, but I hate inefficiency, waste and ineptitude. Call me old-fashioned like that.

I believe there is a time for collective bargaining. But I believe in freedom of choice. Union, non-union…your choice. And if you should make the ‘wrong’ choice -- no amount of coercion, intimidation or threats can make it ‘right’. Democracy trumps ‘thugocracy.’

A couple years ago I was producing a non-union web-series pilot out at Warner’s which I’d also written. I now got to deal with the unions from the other side. I started in negotiations to hire my actors -- all SAG actors. Seems there was a special provision for hiring SAG talent for non-union productions under what they called ‘Low-Budget Experimental.’ I was required to provide health benefits and unemployment set-asides and $100/day salary. They were really trying to stick it to me over the benefits and insurance package, etc -- until I told them that I was going to pay them fifteen times what their own contract required me to pay. Yeah. Screw that $100/day frabba-jabba – I was paying my actors $1500/day. And they can pay for their own health insurance! The SAG rep paused a long, long moment … and said, rather breathlessly… well that would be fine. And we had a deal.

I love actors -- and I’d be damned if my actors would draw minimum wage.

I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on the workings of SAG or the minutia of their day-to-day operations. I only know what I perceived to be right for me and my family at the time and my personal choice was to get the hell outta Dodge. A couple of threatening letters have already gone out to Fi-Core SAG ‘non-members’, myself included. Dire warnings of how the Fi-Core status can hurt our chances of attaining future union work (veiled warnings?). And how for a mere fifteen hundred dollars and paying back-dues, we may be welcomed once again back into the fold. A rousing, snorting chuckle did that letter elicit. Wow golly-gee yippee-yo! Shazam, sign me up!

Ha! – go fish.

I don’t conform to Group-Think. You can have your union. I don’t believe we’re all in one apple cart and can only move as fast as the slowest among us. I will rise or fall according to the brightness of my ingenuity and the steel of my resolve. I’m an individualist.

And if SAG doesn’t like it… they can keep their penny residual check.

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