The leadership of SAG-AFTRA has launched an extensive campaign against performing work on the fast-growing non-union commercial sector.
Dubbed the Commercials Organizing and Recapture Initiative, the campaign aims to expand the jurisdiction of the performers’ union over commercials work, which currently generates $1 billion annually in performer earnings covered by the union’s contract with the ad industry.
“There have been concerns raised by members about non-union work under on the Commercials Contract, particularly in areas such as commercials for the Internet, radio and local TV,” SAG-AFTRA Chief Contracts Officer Ray Rodriguez told Variety. “We can see that there is pressure on ad agencies from advertisers to cut costs.”
The initiative is taking place less than a year before SAG-AFTRA’s current contract with the ad industry expires on March 31. Rodriguez is quick to stress that the campaign is not linked to those talks.
“This initiative is not tied to coincide with negotiations, though of course more member solidarity and less non-union work only benefits us in bargaining,” he said. “The focus of this campaign, however, is on securing this jurisdiction, not on preparing for negotiations.”
Douglas Wood, who handles negotiations for the ad industry, had no comment on the SAG-AFTRA initiative. He also told Variety that no date has been set yet for the contract talks.
Matthew Miller, president of the Association of Independent Commercial Producers, said the effort was likely tied to laying the groundwork for the negotiations. “I firmly believe that members should only work on union jobs,” he added.
The union’s efforts to stir up its 160,000 members offers a stark contrast with its efforts during recent negotiations. Its leaders have kept a low profile on the substance of negotiations with no effort to mobilize members in support of their positions.
But in January, SAG-AFTRA President Ken Howard announced the formation of the President’s Task Force for Education, Outreach and Engagement in order to spark more activism from members. In recent days, members have been receiving campaign materials in recent days instructing them how to combat non-union work.
“The commercials industry is quickly evolving and we must evolve with it,” said Howard and National Executive Director David White. “To protect and expand work opportunities for professional performers in commercials, we are asking for you to get involved. SAG-AFTRA members must act.”
The package of materials includes a “Mythbusters” section, aimed at portraying non-union commercials work as poorly paid and without protections; and “Membership Advantages,” touting the advantages of SAG-AFTRA membership. The union is also posting a series of videos by unnamed working actors.
“We selected working performers for the video that members would recognize,” noted Lori Hunt, the union’s national director of commercial contracts. “They are the ones being directly affected.”
Hunt noted that more than 1,300 members had participated in a recent webinar about commercials work.
“The response was fantastic,” she added. “Phase two involves taking the issue directly to advertisers, to ensure the work in these areas is done under our contracts.”
SAG-AFTRA faces discipline if they work non-union, but that aspect hasn’t been a feature of the union’s campaign so far. “The outreach has taken a positive approach so far without emphasizing the discipline aspect,” Hunt added.
The campaign also contains no mention of the 2,000 commercials strike, in which SAG and AFTRA staged a contentious six-month work stoppage. SAG banned 75 thesps for periods ranging from six months to five years after hearing evidence gathered on over 1,500 non-members for working during the bitter strike.
The most notable cases saw SAG trial boards fining Elizabeth Hurley and Tiger Woods $100,000 each for performing in non-union spots during the strike. The strike became a major issue in subsequent election campaigns, with moderates contending it was unnecessary while activists argued that advertisers’ hard-line stance left SAG with no other option.