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Travis Analyzes The SAG-AFTRA Merger

The SAG/AFTRA Merger:  What does this mean to MCA-I Members?

Short answer: Nobody knows.

Slightly short answer: Not nearly as much as the industry changes which prompted the merger in the first place.

Longer answer:  As of this writing, it appears that the two primary actor’s unions in the United States are about to merge into one union. The merger depends upon acceptance, by ballot, of the majority of the members of both unions.  


The reason there were originally two separate unions is because, until recently, the two unions represented performers in two separate industries – AFTRA (The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) represented performers in the broadcasting industry.  SAG (the Screen Actors Guild) was formed to represent actors in the Motion Picture Industry. 

Both of these unions were formed before the advent of television.  Since both are part of the AFL-CIO, and because many performers were members of both unions, the two unions agreed to work together to avoid conflict when determining jurisdiction – which union would represent which performers who appear on television.  It was decided that AFTRA would represent actors who appeared on live television, and SAG would represent performers on TV programs which were shot on film. When videotape came into widespread use, the unions agreed that videotape would be treated as “live” television when it came to matters of jurisdiction.  For non-broadcast programs, such as corporate videos and training programs, the same rules would apply, SAG for film, and AFTRA for everything else. 

That system worked well, until the advent of the digital age.  Each year, the lines between “TV/Tape” and “Film” productions became less clear.  Some forward-thinking members of both unions succeeded in getting members to vote on mergers in 1998 and 2003, both attempts failed.  There were too many issues of disagreement between the unions concerning existing matters of retirement, dues, and joining eligibility for those merger attempts to succeed.  Many predicted that a serious jurisdictional dispute would occur in time.

That dispute came in to existence 2008 during contract negotiations with the major TV show producers.  AFTRA wanted to accept an offer from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers that SAG would not.  AFTRA then broke with SAG and accepted the producer’s offer.  Though SAG ultimately came to agreement with the Producers, rates for TV shows under the AFTRA agreement were slightly lower.  The same year producers realized it was becoming possible to give up film and keep the same film-look and quality on TV shows.  Producers pounced on the opportunity, and converted dozens of TV shows from film to electronic, thereby switching union jurisdiction from SAG to AFTRA. Needless to say SAG was not happy.  There were also issues of jurisdiction in “new media” which neither side could agree.  The only reasonable solution – merge the two unions.  Most people involved say the merger is likely to go through this time.

Impact of the Merger:

So what does this mean to producers?  -In the short term, very little.  Rates working under both unions are essentially the same.  If you use union performers in your productions, there may be some slight changes of paperwork, but that’ll be about it.  If you usually work non-union, you’ll go on using the same people under the same working conditions.  And remember, most professional performers already charge considerably more than SAG/AFTRA scale- they have to in order to make a decent standard of living.

Long term, however, may be a different story.  Longstanding differences between AFTRA and SAG will need to be worked out, and worked out quickly.  Take, for instance, the matter of the 30-mile “production zone” in Los Angeles, which states that production which takes place within 30 miles of the intersection of Beverly and La Cienega are “local” – which means no per diems or other expenses typically charged for “on-location” productions.  For a long time, many SAG members have seen the zone as discouraging union work in Southern California, while the 30-mile zone has been a real cash-cow for AFTRA members working for TV stations. – Extra money for TV news reporters and other performers who cross the zone under certain locations. AFTRA has been known to intentionally discourage production in Orange County to keep that situation in place.  The merger may mean new SAG/AFTRA offices in Orange County/Ventura/San Bernardino counties, or an extension of the “zone”.

Some performers have benefitted in the separation of the two unions – Having a SAG membership for “bigtime” film and TV productions in Hollywood, and not joining AFTRA, so they can do lower-budget video productions without the risk of violating the union’s “rule-one” (Don’t do non-union work) and subsequent penalties.

SAG also has a history of being much more flexible than AFTRA for certain productions.  For instance you can produce a low-budget SAG feature, and only pay your actors $100.00 per-day, with the union’s blessing – the deal being that if the film’s a big success, you’ll need to pay your actors what they would-have-made under a full SAG contract-plus a bonus.  AFTRA has no such provision, except for certain “new-media” productions.

I don’t consider myself to be a good prognosticator, but it seems that nobody else is either, so here are my predictions:

(1) Most smaller production companies will notice very little change as a result of the unions’ merger.

(2) It will take a couple of years before the total impact of the SAG/AFTRA merger will even begin to be felt.  There are a great number of things the two unions will need to work out AFTER the merger is approved, and there will be a few lawsuits to settle.

(3) Some SAG members and some AFTRA members will hate the deal and attempt to start a new union.

(4) The TMZ (Thirty Mile Zone) will be extended or there will be a new “Local Zone” created in Orange County and other places.

(5) Ultimately, there will be an increase in small productions using union performers. Many producers will be surprised to find it actually saves them money.

(6) We will see greater flexibility from the “new” union, in terms of working with smaller production companies and low-budget production.

Standardization of “new media” rates.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Travis (who goes professionally by just the one name) is a Newport Beach voiceover artist and lifetime member of MCA-i who, before becoming a fulltime voiceover performer, worked as a broadcast engineer, producer, AV industry writer and programmer.  His demos may be found at: