Starving actors blocked merger

Thesp union org issue had high voter turnout

They’re mostly poor — but don’t call them disenfranchised.

A voter profile report released Wednesday by SAG showed that more than half the actors who voted in the recently defeated SAG/AFTRA merger referendum make less than $1,000 a year by acting; astonishingly, 28% of the voters — roughly 16,000 SAG members — earn no income from acting whatsoever.

Nonetheless, the referendum still brought in the highest voter turnout in years, with roughly 54% of all SAG’s members voting. Indeed, only the last SAG/AFTRA merger in 1998 attracted as many voters.

Since only a third of all actors in SAG have agents and, by its own admission, more than 70% of SAG’s membership fails to earn enough to qualify for pension and health benefits, the power of the unemployed in SAG politics is not exactly shocking.

But what is surprising is how sharply SAG voters diverge from American voting patterns. Usually, voter participation rises with income, but within SAG, there appears to be a nearly inversely proportional relationship between the amount of money an actor makes and the likelihood that he or she will bother to vote on matters central to the guild.

For example, of the 58,176 SAG members who voted on the referendum, 73% made less than $5,000 a year through acting. By comparison, only 5% of the voters made more than $50,000.

That said, the report showed that the working “middle class” actors (some 4,000 or so of them) making $20,000-$50,000 a year and belonging to both SAG and AFTRA had the highest ballot turnout of all earning ranges — some 60% returned ballots. At the opposite ends of the income spectrum, 50% of those SAG/AFTRA members reporting no income (some 16,000) turned in ballots, and just over 40% of those SAG/AFTRA members making over $200,000 (well under 1,000 actors) turned in ballots.

Currently running for re-election and having gone on record that she will press forward on the failed consolidation measure, SAG prexy Melissa Gilbert declined to comment on the referendum statistics. But clearly, unlike traditional American elections that are won at the political center, the most meaningful portion of SAG’s voters would seem to be unemployed or starving actors.

Many unions have a work-in-trade requirement that allows only members who work a certain amount to vote in elections. But neither SAG nor AFTRA have such a stipulation as yet. The work-in-trade issue has been raised before at SAG, as recently as last July, in an effort to return control of the union to members who actually earn a living by acting.

Internal SAG documents obtained by Daily Variety in May 2002 showed that 23% of SAG members did not work at all from 1996-2000. SAG’s national board was moved to consider a work-in-trade requirement based on the findings, but fierce opposition on the SAG board led to an indefinite postponement of the issue, and it was never voted on.

Voter information was obtained for the SAG study through bar codes that were placed on the outside of every voting envelope. Actual ballots, contained within a second inside envelope, were counted separately, maintaining the secrecy of every member’s vote.

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