Talent Unions

Another sad chapter in the evolution of digital media that drives me nuts is the talent unions. AFTRA and SAG are in all ways, worse than the IRS in terms of helpfulness, or usefulness when it comes to new media.

Not only to do their rates make the minimum salaries of the “talent” far higher than anyone working on these new media shows, they exclude a giant pool of talent from taking part in cutting edge projects.

Even if I was to offer a SAG or AFTRA member gross points, where if the project makes any money, they can be paid too, the union will require that I pay a minimum for Interactive mediums that is well over $700 PER DAY. Not $200, not $300, not something that’s a fair living wage, but an amount that literally guarantees that there are tens of thousands of non-union projects every year, simply because they price themselves out of the ballgame.

Now, I totally respect and understand that the unions are (in theory) there to protect their members from abuse. And I also understand that there are producers and directors who will abuse their talent (and crew, etc.). I’ve seen it happen, I’ve had it happen to me. But I’ll tell you what, very very rarely is a producer fined or sanctioned for this stuff because most often, people don’t want to complain about it because it’s not worth the headache and BS of dealing with the labor reps, etc and what it does to the set dynamic. Especially if the shoot is only a week or so.

Is it any wonder to the unions that SO much television has gone to reality programming? A large part of the reason is because of the union workers that simply cost too much to hire. The result, we make less programming (a LOT less) that requires your union services. As a matter of fact, there is even coverage of this effect on union workers in Canada last year.

Reality TV isn’t just here because people happen to watch it, it’s here because it cost less… a LOT less both monetarily and in terms of fighting with intractable Union reps who still think this is the 1980’s and networks are the ones funding all the programming, and “hey, they have lots of money.”

So what’s going to happen is that there will continue to be a shrinkage of union talent use in new media and indeed, in all productions as much as producers can.

Let me ask you this. If you are an actor or another union craft worker, would you rather:

  • Be paid $400 for a 12 hour day of work OR
  • Be paid $200 for a 12 hour day of work, and your union gets the rest?

I’ve actually had a number of instances and discussions where Union reps have flat out said “Pay your labor less, and pay the union.”

I guess there’s a good number of folks out there who don’t mind pissing away their union dues and their real income in exchange for producers paying the union instead.

What really gets me at the end of the day is the incessant “us vs. them” mentality – where AFTRA and SAG believe that all the producers are simply taking advantage of the poor little talent so that we can all make off with the booty. For many new media productions, there is no booty. I can tell you that most shows I’ve worked on in recent years, there was maybe, MAYBE one or two people on staff who made a bit more than the talent. All the other segment producers, field directors, and crew all made significantly less than the talent. And then the union blames ME for not doing productions with higher budgets so everyone can be union.

I have a newsflash for the unions – higher budget, means NO budget, because there will be no project. That is simply the reality of a 500 channel universe. The competition to provide ever-cheaper product will continue to erode the union relevance.

I also don’t understand why no one in the unions that I’ve seen are assessing the state of the business beyond how the union members are effected while ignoring the greater economic whole of the industry.

It’s micro-economics at it’s worst and most harmful in that it keeps innovative and new ways of working from ever being explored with the unions support of their members.

There’s got to be a better way and the amateurs and innovators of the world will find them and simply add more nails to the union coffin.