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Screen Actors Guild Business Information, Profile, and History

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5757 Wilshire Boulevard
Los Angeles, California 90036-3600
U.S.A.

Company Perspectives:

The Guild exists to enhance actors' working conditions, compensation and benefits and to be a powerful, unified voice on behalf of artists' rights.

History of Screen Actors Guild

The Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is a labor union based in Los Angeles with 20 branches spread across the United States, representing about 120,000 actors in film, television, commercials, music videos, and industrial films. The guild represents its members in contract negotiations, establishing compensation, working conditions, and benefits. In addition, SAG offers members a pension and health plan, authorizes showcase productions, and sponsors acting workshops and seminars. Although most of the administrative duties are handled by a chief executive officer hired outside of guild membership, the presidency is filled by an active member. Ronald Regan used this high-profile position as a springboard for his political career.

Actors Attempt to Organize in 1800s

Decades before the rise of motion pictures and a century before the advent of television, American performance arts were limited to the stage. Hundreds of cities and towns maintained theaters housing stock companies of actors that mounted a variety of plays to entertain their patrons. The stock theater tradition was undercut by the advent of touring stars who used a company's actors in supporting roles. Because this arrangement led to uneven performances, the stars began to take along key supporting actors and eventually toured with complete ensembles. Theater owners became landlords and stock companies began to fade from the scene. New York City became the center of the theater world during the latter half of the 1800s, serving as a clearinghouse for productions that originated there but played only brief runs before the show was taken on the road. It was a time when playwrights received no royalties and actors were often at the mercy of unscrupulous managers and producers. The first attempt to organize actors was made in the 1860s with the Actor's Protective Union. In the 1890s, the American Federation of Labor granted the first actors' union charter to the Actors National Protective Union. The first modern actors' union was Actors' Equity Association (Equity), founded in 1913. It was accepted into organized labor in 1919 and launched a major Broadway strike in that same year, establishing itself as a force to be reckoned with in the theater.

While Equity was establishing itself, the motion picture industry was growing rapidly and employing an increasing number of stage actors. In the early days, screen actors were not even named, a practice that eliminated the costly star system that had evolved in the theater, but the audience soon demanded to know the names of their screen favorites, and the star system took hold in the movies as well. After the film industry settled in Hollywood, screen actors looked to band together as had their stage brethren, forming an organization called the Screen Actors of America as well as the Motion Picture Players Union, which represented extra players. In 1920, Equity superseded these organizations and was granted jurisdiction by the American Federation of Labor to represent both principal and extra motion picture performers. Hollywood did not recognize the union, however. In 1929, Equity launched a strike to gain recognition in motion pictures, but the strike was broken and recognition denied.

While Equity may have failed to establish itself in California, an increasing number of its members were taking the train to the West Coast to work in the movies. Following the success of The Jazz Singer, which launched the era of "talking pictures," there was a major shift in Hollywood's acting pool. Many stars of the silent movie era were unable to make the transition because their voices did not translate to the screen. As a result, stage actors were in high demand. However, talking pictures were also more difficult to make, requiring longer hours and leading to abuse of performers, who had no required meal breaks and worked 12- to 14-hours stretches for days on end. Moreover, under the Hollywood studio system, they were bound to seven-year contracts that because of a gentleman's agreement between studio moguls not to poach one other's talent, could essentially be renewed at the whim of the studios. Nor were they reluctant to dictate to actors about how to conduct their personal lives. The only recourse to actors was to quit their chosen profession.

Stage actors, having gotten a taste of power through Equity, were willing to be more confrontational with the studios, but former silent actors were disgruntled as well, especially after the studios announced massive pay cuts. The Masquers Club in Los Angeles, founded by silent actor Antonio Moreno, had become a place where actors voiced their complaints about the studio system. Late in 1932, about two dozen of these actors began to meet weekly at each other's homes and following the announced pay cuts they were ready to form a new union, one primarily focused on supporting players. Over the years, Hollywood had established its own caste system within which stars, supporting actors, bit players, and extras had little to do with one another. The need to attract stars to the union cause for the sake of publicity would begin to break down these barriers.

SAG Takes Shape in the Early 1930s

The studios were well aware of the actors secret meetings held in the spring of 1933. The malcontents hired attorney Laurence Beilenson, recommended by the newly established Screen Writers Guild. During a June 1933 meeting at the home of Equity's West Coast representative, Kenneth Thomson, 18 actors gathered, with Beilenson in attendance, and decided to make a legal organization out of their informal meetings. They decided to incorporate to insulate members from financial liability, an important factor in attracting stars, and opted to use "guild" in the name, lest "union" scare off the more conservative members. Hence, the Screen Actors Guild was incorporated by Beilenson on June 30, 1933. At the first corporate meeting, held two weeks later, the first union cards were issued and Ralph Morgan was named president. According to SAG's bylaws, it was a nonpaying post, because unlike other unions SAG officers volunteered their time and did not make union work their livelihood.

Slowly, SAG attracted stars to its ranks, but gaining recognition from the studios proved more difficult. Starting in 1936, the Guild began building support among its membership for a showdown with management. Finally, members voted to go on strike at midnight May 10, 1937 if the Guild was not recognized. The studios were further pressured by the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and a coalition of rival unions called the Federation of Motion Picture Crafts. Following a negotiation session on the morning of May 9, studio producers finally agreed to accept SAG as the bargaining representative for the actors. A few days later, the Guild signed a contract with 13 producers stipulating minimum salaries and establishing rules on such matters as overtime and location shooting. The main work for SAG now became the enforcement of that contract. Many of the problems involved extra players, and since their numbers were far greater than actors they had the potential to control the union and were thus denied the right to vote. Unhappy with both the producers and SAG, some extras defected to a new union in 1944, the Screen Players Union. A SAG-backed union for extras, Screen Extras Guild was also formed and was able to receive recognition from the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, the American Federation of Labor's holding corporation for performers' unions.

The post-World War II years were a contentious period for SAG as the House of Representatives launched a far-reaching investigation of Communist infiltration in American institutions, including the film industry. Many film people were summoned to Washington, D.C., to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC). Some SAG members, including the Guild's newly elected president, Ronald Reagan, and Gary Cooper were "friendly witnesses" and willingly cooperated, telling what they knew about the impact of Communism on Hollywood. Other SAG members flew to Washington to support the "Hollywood Ten," nine screenwriters and one director who refused to answered the committee's questions. All would be held in contempt of the U.S. Congress and imprisoned, and nine of them would be blacklisted by the studios. Although far from alone, SAG caved to political pressure during the Communist witch hunt years. In 1948, members voted overwhelmingly to require officers, directors, and committee members to sign affidavits swearing that they were not members of the Communist Party. Then, in 1953, they approved a bylaw that required new members to swear they were not party members and pledged that they would not join the Communist Party. As HUAC continued its work well into the 1950s, many more film people would be called before the committee. Either they refused to testify and were blacklisted, or they named names, which led to the gray-listing of colleagues. Because such bans were semi-secret, the exact number of actors affected was uncertain. According to David F. Prindle in The Politics of Glamour, "Perhaps a hundred SAG members discovered at one time or another that they could not get work for political reasons. Some of those talked to a 'clearance officer' and were reestablished; some waited out the 1950s on Broadway or elsewhere and eventually returned to the screen; some dropped into obscurity; a few died of stress or committed suicide."

A significant tool employed by HUAC was the growing medium of television, which during the postwar years went national and broadcast the hearings. The movies were already undergoing a major upheaval when the Hollywood studio system was ruled monopolistic and illegal in 1948, leading to a major restructuring of the industry. Television became a significant threat to the financial health of the film industry and in turn to the existence of SAG. The era of studio contract players was essentially over, turning the vast majority of actors into freelancers whose lives were fraught with uncertainty. Fewer films were now produced, resulting in fewer acting jobs and making unemployment among SAG members an even greater problem. Television would of course need the services of actors, but there was an open question about who would represent them: SAG or the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA). Because television could be a live broadcast medium comparable in some ways to radio, and also broadcast filmed material, tensions began to develop between SAG and AFRA about which union should represent television performers. In 1934, Actors Equity, Chorus Equity, the American Guild of Variety Artists, and the American Guild of Musical Artists created the Television Authority (TVA) to coordinate a response to the new medium. Then, in the 1940s, these four unions joined with AFRA in supporting the idea of granting jurisdiction over television acting to TVA. For California-based SAG, such a proposal smacked of New York collusion. According to Prindle, "If, as appeared possible in the late forties, television killed the movies altogether, then the only way the guild would survive would be by representing actors making films for the new medium. To give that jurisdiction to AFRA in the guise of TVA would be to commit slow suicide, for as television suffocated the motion-picture industry AFRA would inherit the right to represent screen actors." The dispute between the two sides was eventually put before the National Labor Relations Board, leading to certification elections that were won overwhelmingly by SAG, whose members preferred to stick with a successful union located where they worked rather than throwing in with an upstart headquartered 3,000 miles away. TVA disbanded, leaving AFRA with jurisdiction over live television and SAG over filmed work. AFRA then added "Television" to its name, becoming AFTRA. Nevertheless, the lines of jurisdiction between the two unions would only grow more blurry with time and remain an important issue for SAG over the next half century.

Rise of Television Leads to 1950s Setback

A drop in film production led to a decline in SAG membership in the early 1950s, but the Guild was able to strike a deal with talent agency Music Corporation of America (MCA), to bring the filming of television programs to Hollywood. In exchange for issuing a waiver allowing a talent agency to act as producer, SAG won residual payments for its members on any television programs that were rerun. The other Hollywood producers followed suit, and the filming of television series in Hollywood increased dramatically during the 1950s, so that by the early 1960s about 75 percent of all work in Hollywood was television related. As a result, SAG's membership grew, and any thought that Hollywood would turn into a ghost town or the Guild would be disbanded were quickly forgotten.

In addition to steadily increasing residual payments on television reruns for its members, SAG negotiated payments from producers for films sold to television. In March 1960, SAG went on strike over the issue and members stayed out until April 18, bringing to a halt several major productions. A settlement was reached resulting in a lump sum payment of $2.65 million, which was then used to establish a pension and welfare plan.

The way SAG elected its leaders changed in the 1970s, as independent candidates began to challenge the slate of seven officer positions put forward by the Guild's nominating committee. The first incumbent to be defeated by an independent was John Gavin, replaced in 1973 by Dennis Weaver, joined by six other independent candidates. As a result, SAG's longtime conservative leadership was replaced by a decidedly more liberal and activist officers. The Guild's first woman president, Kathleen Nolan, was elected two years later. She would lead the SAG strike of 1978 to 1979 over increased residuals for actors appearing in television commercials. A year later, a new president, William Schallert, would be in charge when SAG once again walked out, this time striking from July 21 to October 1980 in support of negotiations over Pay-TV and video-cassette productions.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, SAG and AFTRA began launched talks to merge the two unions. However, despite a recommendation for a merger from its leadership, SAG members voted down the measure in 1981. The idea of joining forces with AFTRA would be shelved for the time being and would not be revisited until the 1990s. The Guild also took steps to merge with Screen Extras Guild, but this proposal was also rejected, once in 1982 and again in 1984.

In the meantime, SAG continued to adapt to changes in the media landscape. The increasing importance of cable television networks was a major issue. In 1991, the Guild won increased payments for commercials appearing on cable television. SAG also recognized the rise of new media, signing its first Interactive contract covering multimedia productions in 1993. The following year, SAG also added stunt players to the fold and negotiated contracts for the growing Spanish television market. The Guild ended the decade by once again taking on the question of merging with AFTRA. While 67.6 percent of AFTRA members approved the idea, only 46.5 percent of SAG members voted yes, and once again the merger was defeated.

As the 21st century dawned, SAG's new, aggressive leadership, headed by president William Daniels, launched a strike over commercials. Again, the changing balance between the broadcast television networks and cable television was at the heart of the matter. While actors received a payment for each time a commercial aired on broadcast television, they received only a flat fee for 13 weeks for commercials playing on cable. The strike lasted from May through October 2000. Many members were displeased with the outcome, contending that whatever gains the union may have realized were offset by the loss of income actors suffered during the six-month strike. When it came time to negotiate a new contract with the major studios a year later, SAG, in conjunction with AFTRA, took a more conciliatory approach, brokered a deal, and averted a strike many assumed was inevitable. Left unresolved, however, was how to compensate actors when their work appeared on the Internet, an issue that was likely to become a matter of contention when Web-based, video-on-demand services became commercial. Since no one knew how that market might develop, it was a fight neither side was willing to join at the moment.

In 2003, SAG leadership once again put forward a proposal to merge with AFTRA, only to see members vote down the idea. The Guild's CEO, Bob Pisano, also came under fire because he sat on the board of directors of the DVD rental company Netflix at a time when the Guild was attempting to negotiate higher DVD residuals for actors. Moreover, SAG was divided on other issues, as members defeated an attempt to raise dues and rejected a proposed franchise agreement between the Guild and talent agents. There was genuine concern that SAG had become so fractured that its ability to negotiate new contracts was mitigated, since there were major concerns about the Guild's ability to convince its members to ratify what was agreed to at the bargaining table. In March 2005, Pisano was replaced by a new CEO, but it was thought that his replacement, Greg Hessinger, might very well open up old wounds. Hessinger was the current CEO of AFTRA.

Principal Competitors: American Federation of Radio and Television Artists.

Chronology

  • Key Dates:
  • 1933: Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is incorporated.
  • 1937: SAG is recognized by major film studios.
  • 1948: The Hollywood studio system is ruled to be monopolistic.
  • 1960: A pension plan is established.
  • 1975: Kathleen Nolan becomes SAG's first woman president.
  • 1981: A merger attempt with the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists (AFTRA) fails.
  • 2000: SAG launches a six-month strike over commercials.
  • 2003: A merger with AFTRA is again rejected by SAG members.
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