It’s all to easy to dismiss the most recent conflict between the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists as nothing more than a self-destructive squabble between two groups of partisan actors who lack the collective brains to help themselves. What it is, in fact, is the latest chapter of the ongoing struggle that began in 1933, when the founding fathers of SAG, inspired by the ideal that unionism represented the greatest good for the greatest number, created an artists’ union for middle and working class actors under the motto: “He best serves himself who serves others.”
In the years since the SAG charter was first drafted, every effort toward that goal failed to win the support of the very actors who stood most to gain; not stars or the privileged few who work frequently enough to make a living, but the rank and file, the 85% of our members who make less then $5,000 a year, and without whose contribution and sacrifice there would be no industry. In 2003, the Consolidation and Affiliation proposal failed to achieve the required 60% approval of the SAG membership by a scant 1,200 votes. Phase One of Merger, the 27-year-old alliance under which SAG and AFTRA negotiate jointly with the AMPTP, is the most recent victim of this internecine struggle. Caused by the intransigence and personal politics of a few, it has led the rest of us to this jurisdictional precipice: two unions negotiating two different contracts for the same actor and for the same job.
The only sensible solution is one union. But that union can never be achieved by aggression, intimidation or duplicity. It requires cooperation, collegiality and a singleness of purpose: to create one consolidated and affiliated organization that exemplifies and protects the interests of those who need it most — the working actor. Any union, whose membership includes some who make millions and a majority who cannot make a living, needs to craft a constitution that resolves that inequity in a creative and egalitarian way. Those actors who are still chasing an elusive dream, but, as of yet, have no pony in the race, need the protections and benefits a union provides all its members, only not to the detriment or expense of those who work regularly in the industry.
A union is not a democracy. It is “that which is united into a single body for a common purpose.” Now, before any more damage is done, both unions need to commit to the creation of such a body, as a first step toward one world union for all workers in this industry. We need to maximize our leverage over the increasingly consolidated employers we face across the table. We need to be able to negotiate with the representatives of these multinational corporations as equals, regardless of the salaries we make, the country we live in, or the craft we pursue. Only then will we achieve an equitable share from the proceeds of our work. Marx said, “From each according to his ability. To each according to his need.” That may sound utopian, but, let’s face it, everyone for themselves will never serve the whole. The cry is now, as it always has been: “UNION!”