The Screen Actors Guild just announced that a whole lot of its members will soon be without health insurance. That’s because the union has lost most of its clout and income. Now, you don’t become an actor because security is high on your wish list. If that’s what you want, go to work for the post office (where one of your fellow workers may shoot you). But we used to have a pretty good union with pretty good benefits. What happened?
Fifty four years ago, I was elected first vice president of the New York local of the television actors union which came to be known as AFTRA. My fellow board members and I fought hard to convince members to merge with the Screen Actors Guild. Double the size of the union, double the bargaining power! But some of the members resisted, afraid that the number of actors competing with them for jobs would multiply. (Virtually all work produced for television was live and did not involve film and therefore SAG. Why let all those west coast people in on a good thing!)
As time went by, things shifted, more and more shows began to be produced on film and SAG became dominant. Now, it was the film actors turn to fear competition. Why let that little TV union in on a good thing. There’s almost no live TV left, these guys are nothing but news-casters and talk show hosts. Every attempt at merger has failed because a vocal frightened minority in first one union and then the other fought tooth and nail against it on the grounds that there would be more actors competing against them for jobs. These actors are, I think, insecure in their talent so, naturally, scared of competition.
Recently, something unforeseen happened. The technology of video- tape became so improved that it began to compete in quality with that of film. TV sitcoms and dramas could now be shot under the aegis of the smaller union, AFTRA. Because it was smaller and weaker, it had had to settle for less pay and fewer benefits for its members. There was lots of money to be saved by producers. They could hire the same actors under AFTRA for whom they would have had to pay more under SAG.
Frightened little people, over the years, have scuttled chance after chance to have performers represented by one large, powerful union. Now any chance at merger is probably gone forever. When I was a kid, FDR on the radio said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself”. We should be afraid of fear, or at least of acting out of it. That always wreaks havoc and now we actors are paying for it.