Why I’m Voting “No” on the tentative SAG-AFTRA TV/Theatrical Contract

LISTEN TO THE AUDIO VERSION OR DOWNLOAD THE PDF

Dearest Brothers and Sisters of my creative family and our union: SAG-AFTRA,

First, and most importantly, I pray this email finds you and yours safe and healthy, and wish you the very best during this health crisis.

I feel duty-bound to reach out to you today because our union is at a crossroads, and we have a chance to make history together and bring all our members together in SOLIDARITY to fight for our value.

You may have been receiving emails and postcards from SAG-AFTRA telling you to vote “Yes” on the tentative TV/Theatrical contract that was recently negotiated. You may not know that, for the first time in our union’s history, the elected leadership of the Los Angeles and New Orleans Locals, representing the majority of our union’s members, have voted overwhelmingly to not support this contract. The elected leaders representing Background actors and Stunt performers in our union do not support this contract, nor do the leaders of the LA Local Committee on Sexual Harassment.

You are under no obligation to vote “Yes” just because an email or postcard from SAG-AFTRA tells you to. Our leadership is supposed to be presenting the results of their negotiations to us, so we can evaluate the terms of the contract. It’s impossible to evaluate the contract if we’re not getting all the information. We need to know the good AND the bad, but instead we’re only getting the highlights, plus hype, misinformation, scare tactics, and pressure to vote “Yes.”

SAG-AFTRA National Leadership has even engaged in open voter suppression, by initially only including a VOTE YES button on the SAG-AFTRA website voting page, as well as only VOTE YES links in the email blasts (here’s another example), confusing and discouraging members who may wish to vote “No.”

Voter turnout for this contract is already extremely low and declining, with only 15% of members voting in 2017, down from 16% in 2014. And this is the contract we all dream of working, representing almost all high budget film and television projects that are not made by Netflix.

Attempts by members to share factual information about the contract online have been met with removal from union-related Facebook groups, and posts that question or oppose the contract or the actions of our leadership have been deleted, leading to the stunning resignation by the Chair of the National Stunt Committee, Cort Hessler, who posted this statement just last Saturday, July 11th:

“After seeing the suppression on education about this new contract by National Board Members and Local Presidents. (The people who we need to trust) I have resigned as The Chair of the National Stunt and Safety Committee. I cannot work alongside these people and just be okay with it. Good luck to all of you in getting the information you need.”

A “Yes” vote will not cure COVID and immediately put us back to work. A “No” vote is not a vote to strike, but an opportunity to use our forced down time to stand up for our value at a moment when the whole world has turned to our art for comfort and escape, and to our broadcasters to stay informed about life and death issues.

It doesn’t bring me or other members leaders any pleasure to take a dissenting position against our brothers and sisters in the national boardroom, but nothing is more American than courageous dissent. We are living at a time in our country when those in the majority are learning how to better protect and hear minority viewpoints. I and others hope our voices are heard and valued within our own union.

So please take this communication from me to you as inspiration or a call to action to do some research about your union and this contract and vote, and consider getting more involved. We are the union, and a member-led union like ours depends on our participation.

:: AN AMAZING EDUCATIONAL PDF ABOUT THE CONTRACT

I highly recommend you look at this short PDF slide deck about the contract, created by National Board Member Nitasha Bhambree serving the New York Local, that makes it all much easier to understand, and is as factual and non-political as possible: https://bit.ly/contractdeck With her hard work and brilliance, she’s created a new educational tool that will forever change how we evaluate our contracts. New York members: you’re lucky to have her representing you.

:: ON TO MY STATEMENT

The following is why I’m voting “No” on the tentative TV/Theatrical contract being considered by the membership of SAG-AFTRA for ratification. My opinion is the result of my experience in leadership over three years as a member of the Los Angeles Local Board and as a regular National Board Alternate, having been present for all but two national board meetings over that period.

I’ve boiled my perspective down to three main points:

First: We did not achieve what we said we needed and for which reason we perverted the normal negotiation process within our union.

Last summer, I was present at meetings where our National Executive Director, David White, President Gabrielle Carteris, and Executive Vice President Rebecca Damon, told us they were reducing the traditional six-week W&W process to just one week, and holding W&Ws almost a year earlier than normal, because they had already decided which four issues they said we needed to fight for, and even strike over, if necessary.

Those issues were:

#1) Raising our Pension and Health Contribution Caps (the yearly amount of income per performer upon which the producers must make pension and health contributions, and which haven’t been raised in almost 40 years),

#2) Getting Improvements in AVOD & SVOD (Advertising-supported Video On Demand and Subscription-based Video On Demand) in terms of residuals, reducing the budget thresholds to trigger High Budget SVOD terms and so there are established minimums instead of rates being freely bargained, and more,

#3) Onerous Exclusivity & Options Contracts which prevent many of our working members from working in other productions while waiting for a project to film, during production, and after filming while waiting for additional seasons to be ordered or produced,

#4) Eliminate or Significantly Limit Advance Payment of Residuals, where our members, often without being informed, were being paid what they thought was initial compensation, but a portion of which above scale was actually advanced payment of residuals, robbing our members of future residual income to weather the common fluctuations in our professional careers and income.

In this tentative agreement with the AMPTP, we only achieved half of #2 and nothing else; not #1, #3, or #4. And no gains in AVOD, though we did get gains in SVOD. But even then, the terms in this contract are worse in so many ways than the Netflix Agreement our staff negotiated last year (See Nitasha’s PDF).

And speaking of Netflix: we completely squandered the leverage we had over the AMPTP during this negotiation due to the fact that if we can’t reach a deal with them, we can all still go work for Netflix, the largest producer of content and the first worldwide TV channel. That should have given us the leverage to get at least equal, if not better, terms from the AMPTP, and the kicker is: Netflix has already agreed to match anything that is better in our contract with the AMPTP. How have we managed to squander this opportunity?

But let’s back up for a second, because in order to understand how we got here, you need to know a few things about the process that led to it.

In a break from tradition, President Carteris seated the Negotiating Committee BEFORE the W&W meetings last year; open meetings where members can come and offer their ideas for a better contract, and where members who showed up consistently, and with good ideas, were recruited into the Negotiating Committee (NegCom). That decision came under a ton of criticism.

Our national leadership claimed that seating the committee early would give SAG-AFTRA the opportunity to have more time to prepare for this important fight and the option to go first in the pattern of bargaining that has become traditional, where the Directors Guild negotiates with the AMPTP first, then the Writers Guild, and finally SAG-AFTRA. By going first, we could break free of the pressure to acquiesce to the terms agreed to by our sister unions.

After the W&Ws there was a meeting in July 2019 of the negotiating committee, called plenary, where they decided which proposals to include in their negotiating package, whittling down close to 150 proposals and passed motions from all the W&Ws in our Locals to less than 15.

Then the negotiating committee did not meet for eight months. They did not use that time to prepare for the negotiations. They did not go first in the pattern to break free of the DGA and WGA contract terms pressure. In fact, our negotiating team did not even have its own proposal for SVOD and ended up just following the “pattern” set by the DGA.

And if we hadn’t held the W&W meetings a year early, they would have been held in the two months prior to our negotiation, meaning April/May of this year. Of course, we know now that the world is completely different after March of this year than it was in June/July of last year. And still, prior to negotiations, our negotiating committee never met to discuss the ramifications of COVID-19 and how it would affect our proposals and priorities.

As confirmed by our staff, the financial models used to project future trends, gains, and losses do not factor in the impact of the ongoing and worsening pandemic on our lives and industry, or the shutdown of production so far, and possibly for many more months, or, God-forbid, even years.

With respect to issues like us giving away huge reductions in broadcast syndication residuals: isn’t it obvious that existing content will become more valuable and lucrative due to the fact that new content can’t safely be produced for a long time and networks will need to fill airtime? It seems obvious to the AMPTP.

Might we have had different priorities now that we know from the Industry COVID Safety Guidelines (East Coast ones here and West Coast ones here) that guest cast and background actors are going to be written out of projects as much as possible to reduce risk to the leads?

How will the projected 20% additional cost of complying with the safety guidelines affect the number and types of projects that will be produced and how will that change the projected increase in HBSVOD revenue?

There are so many questions like these that were not properly prepared for by our NegCom prior to negotiations, the answers to which may have significantly changed our strategy, priorities, and proposals. We need them to go back to the drawing board and take into account the world as it is today, not as it was a year ago.

So, from my point of view, the process alone that led to this contract and its deficiencies are the result of such flawed leadership and strategic thinking that it rises to the level of negotiation malpractice. And that’s even before we try to evaluate the specific terms of the tentative agreement before us.

Second: Nudity and Sexual Harassment Protections — Wasted Negotiating Capital and Unacceptable Results.

In the #MeToo, #TimesUp, COVID, and George Floyd era, during which there is such cultural and national focus on our safety and well-being, it was thought that nudity and sexual harassment proposals would be seen as mutually beneficial; protections that no production would want to undervalue. Apparently, our negotiating committee was caught off-guard and had to spend precious negotiation time and capital fighting for protections that the AMPTP already gave to our sister union in Canada, ACTRA. Sadly, despite making costly concessions, including some for nothing in return, our team left negotiations with much less than what ACTRA has (See Article A24 of the BCMPA).

In addition, some protections for principal actors in this contract do not apply to background actors, who must put themselves at personal risk to object, on the day, without the same prior notification period, to sexual or nude performance requirements.

Also not achieved were the inclusion of Intimacy Coordinators to help advocate for, and protect, performers on set, something the national leadership has claimed it values.

It’s simply not acceptable for the AMPTP to put a price on our safety and dignity on set, nor for our negotiating team to leave us vulnerable in these areas, especially when it cost us other crucial negotiation proposals.

Third: Once again, Our most vulnerable and lowest earning members are being exploited and neglected.

  • Yearly increases in scale pay are being diverted every year to support the pension plan and health plan that less than 20% of our members qualify for, and even fewer will qualify for due to COVID devastating our community.
  • Residual pay for programs in broadcast syndication are being reduced at a time when the 35,000 members affected need it the most, and even though it generated a record $95 million in earnings last year.
  • Pension & Health contributions are taken out of pre-1998 residual income instead of it being paid on top.
  • No minimum rates (or even 12-hour turnaround) in New Media & SVOD programs under 20 minutes regardless of budget and what they’re paying their leads.
  • Stunt performers will continue to forfeit their cumulative overtime pay in features for performing high risk, dangerous, skilled stunts.
  • Background actors’ jobs are not protected; work done by a third of our members, that is responsible for 1 out of every 5 new members who join our union, and a category of work that is an essential supplemental source of income for members to support themselves and qualify for benefits across all our Locals.

There are just too many glaring and dangerous issues in this contract to ignore.

You pay thousands of dollars in initiation fees and dues, and yet our union and this contract continues to underserve us, and especially those in the aspirational stages of their careers or in the most vulnerable member and work categories.

Voting “No” will send our negotiating team back to the table.

Please vote here, if you haven’t yet, and vote your conscience.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. As a member-led union, our health and success depends on your involvement.

Let’s act with care.

In Solidarity,

Shaan Sharma
LA Local Board Member & National Board Alternate
Co-Chair, Los Angeles Local Conservatory

::

For more information about why so many members and member leaders are voting “No,” including the full official minority report, please visit DissentingOpinion2020.com.

Click here for the Official SAG-AFTRA Contract Referendum Booklet.

Also, if you have not yet read or listened to my April “Update for SAG-AFTRA Members,” it explains why our union has done so little to support our members during this crisis, including suspending our National Board and preventing our Locals from offering programming and community to their members. It may be the most important piece of communication you can experience to understand where we are at this moment.

For additional context, I also encourage you to read or listen to my “2019 Letter to SAG-AFTRA Members” and my “2017 Letter to SAG-AFTRA Membershere.