SAG-AFTRA Taking Jurisdictional Dispute With Actors Equity to AFL-CIO

Leaders of SAG-AFTRA have taken the union’s bitter jurisdictional battle with Actors Equity to the AFL-CIO by filing a complaint and requesting a mediator.

SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris and National Executive Director David White made the request Saturday in a letter to Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO.

“It is with heavy hearts that we file a formal complaint and request for a mediator in our jurisdictional dispute,” Carteris and  White said in a message to their members. “Let us be very clear: this is a last resort. We tried negotiation, but Actors’ Equity Association refused our waiver and walked away from talks with no notice.”

The two unions are locked in a dispute over which should cover the streaming of live events. Each has blamed the other for the breakdown. Actors Equity, which represents 51,000 theater actors and stage managers, has accused SAG-AFTRA of raiding its turf and undercutting its contracts by negotiating lower-paying deals with theaters for streaming productions. SAG-AFTRA, which represents 160,000 performers in film, TV and radio, is asserting that work made for broadcast is within its jurisdiction.

White and Carteris said in the letter to Trumka, “Since the conflict has arisen as a result of, or at least been greatly exacerbated by, the financial strains placed on AEA union members during the COVID-19 pandemic, SAG-AFTRA has made clear its willingness to grant waivers to AEA to allow it to perform much of the work in dispute for a limited period of time, and subject to various jurisdictional acknowledgements. To the present date, at least, AEA has been unwilling to accept what SAG-AFTRA had assumed would be perfectly logical and acceptable conditions in exchange for these waivers.”

The letter also said both SAG-AFTRA and AEA are members of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (also known as the 4As) and that SAG-AFTRA is invoking the 4As’ jurisdictional dispute resolution procedures and noted that those are to be  carried out with the input of the AFL-CIO’s Department of Professional Employees.

“Consequently, we respectfully request that the AFL-CIO’s DPE assist the parties in this matter, including, but not limited to, facilitating the appointment of a mediator to pursue an agreement as to this matter,” Carteris and White said. “Although SAG-AFTRA has decided to initiate dispute resolution processes through the 4As, we remain willing and eager to use the services of the AFL-CIO’s DPE to find an amicable resolution to the dispute if possible.”

The dispute went public on Oct. 7, when Carteris and White delivered a message to members that their union was willing to offer a waiver in order to create more work opportunities for AEA members — but that it must contain an acknowledgment of SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction. The duo said that Actors Equity has refused to compromise.

“We write to make you aware of an emerging issue between SAG-AFTRA and our sister union, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA). As you know, SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction is very clear,” Carteris and White said in the Oct. 7 letter. “We cover recorded and broadcast media in all their forms. That means movies, television, new media, commercials, radio, music and sound recordings, and digital content, whether recorded or delivered live. In essence, all live media or recorded media falls under our historical and traditional jurisdiction.”

Mary McColl, executive director of New York-based Actors’ Equity, went public at the same time and accused SAG-AFTRA of using the pandemic to claim jurisdiction in Equity workplaces. She asserted cast members are not paid as well and lose contributions toward Equity health and pension benefits. McColl also said stage managers — who are not covered by SAG-AFTRA — are excluded under such deals.

“Members have told us they were offered contracts for as little as $125 per day,” she said. “Multiple stage mangers told us they have been excluded entirely, had their contracts revoked or been offered work as independent contractors and without workers’ compensation protections.”

McColl estimated that around 60 productions this year have signed with SAG-AFTRA, amounting to $600,000 in lost earnings and $154,000 in lost contributions to the health fund.

SAG-AFTRA said in the Oct 7. letter that it had for decades covered recorded or live broadcast presentations including Broadway shows (“Hamilton,” “Diana” and “Jesus Christ Superstar”); televised special events (the Tony Awards and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade); morning shows (“The Today Show” and “Live with Kelly & Ryan”); and late night shows (“The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!”).

Actors Equity was not immediately available for comment Saturday.

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