Ron Perlman

How SAG-AFTRA Navigated Chaos

Inside the massive restructuring of the labor union representing more than 160,000 film and television workers.

Last year’s long-in-the-works merger between the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) hasn’t been easy. Although it’s given actors more power at the bargaining table—now studios and networks can’t "go across the street and make a better deal someplace else," Ron Perlman, the Hellboy and Sons Of Anarchy star who is a SAG-AFTRA National Board member tells Fast Company—there have been layoffs and closures of SAG and AFTRA offices around the country to reduce redundancies.

"With the merger and with the streamlining efforts, there’s definitely pain attached to that," admits SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director David White.

Still, White is upbeat when he talks about the enormous restructuring efforts that are underway to bring the newly created guild to the cutting edge of technology and innovation. From automating the guild’s phone system; to making sure SAG-AFTRA members receive their residual checks in a more timely manner; to creating a SAG-AFTRA University that will keep staff members up to speed on contracts; the organization is doing everything it can to improve member services and stay on top of the rapidly evolving entertainment landscape.

"Media is changing at exponential speed right now. Light speed," White says. "And the employment patterns and distribution mechanisms for media and information and music are all undergoing change. We want to make sure our contracts remain relevant and viable in that environment, and that our staff and members are expanding every work opportunity possible under those agreements."

White went on to outline what innovations are in the works for SAG-AFTRA and how they will significantly upgrade operations, leading to a savings of $6 million, or about 8% of the organization’s annual budget.

Replace Brick And Mortar With Technology In Smaller Markets

Ten (of 25 total) physical offices in areas like New Orleans and Portland have been closed as a way to reduce inefficiency. "What we found was, in some areas where we had brick and mortar offices, often we had broadcast units and sets that were never visited," White says. "We realized that you can actually have a presence on a set or broadcast unit using technology (such as phones, email, and video conferencing) for example, and cover a wider geographic area more methodically if we put a better protocol in place, whether or not we had a person on the ground."

Upgrade The Phones

"Our phone system was really, really old," White says. This was a problem considering that SAG-AFTRA has over 160,000 members who are serviced by thousands of agents, business managers, accountants, and other representatives, all of whom regularly dial up the guild seeking information. "We didn’t have a centralized phone tree, we haven’t had a technology system that puts information in front of the front of the first-line staff, the people who receive calls, so that they can immediately process the question and get the caller to the right location. A lot of it was manual and relied on the expertise and training of the individual.

"We’re moving to a system that’s more automated... We want to reduce the turnaround time for people who receive call-backs, and reduce the amount of time it takes for people to get the information they need... We have to move from a paper-based and manual type environment to a technologically savvy environment."

Speed Up Check Delivery

"We’ve got this weird thing that we do that very few labor organizations do, which is, we receive the payment for our members from their various employers," White says. "All those checks come here."

How many checks? Close to 4 million a year, all of which—until now—have been processed manually before being redistributed to members. No longer.

"We’re working with partners to change the system from a paper-based one to an electronic funds transfer," White says. "We’re focused on doing what we can to speed up that check delivery."

Tony Shalhoub

"A lot of times actors had to kind of, with the unions help, contact networks when they knew that something had been replayed or was in a foreign sale—people had to track down their money," Monk star and National SAG-AFTRA board member Tony Shalhoub tells Fast Company. "Now, thanks to the digital realm, we’re able to track that stuff a lot better."

SAG-AFTRA University

The guild is creating SAG-AFTRA University as a way to keep staff members up to speed on all information pertaining to contracts. "I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of our collective bargaining agreements, but they tend to be—our basic, theatrical agreement is over 1,000 pages of single-line, thin type," White says. Traditionally, he says, staff has been trained in contract legalese the old-fashioned way. "Get a book, work with a mentor, and learn through experience."

Now, through a curriculum known as SAG-AFTRA University, employees will complete a combination of online coursework, lecture series, and videos, to learn about their areas of expertise. "So if they’re hired in the TV department, in TV contracts, rather than giving them the TV contract and saying, ‘See you in six months,’ they’re going to have a specific course online that their manager can monitor as they accelerate." They will also take courses that cover more general areas of the union, and attend brown bag lunches where a professor or media analyst might come speak. And veteran staff members will make videos sharing their knowledge so that when they retire their knowledge will not leave the union with them.

"It’s going to be an opportunity for anyone who works on behalf of artists nationwide, worldwide, really, to have a vocabulary that is consistent and a set of variables that are of a piece," Perlman says. "Rather than all over the map."

[Ron Perlman image: Flickr user Pat Loika; Tony Shalhoub image: Flickr user WEBN-TV]

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  • Paul Horn

    Ms. Lewis is quite correct---this was a puff piece, the sort of article we'd expect to see in SAG-AFTRA's own magazine, not in a publication like Fast Company which we'd like to count on for some serious research,analysis and insight.  

    No doubt David White and his staff have some good ideas for improving member services-- the residual payment and phone systems, for example, are both archaic, as he points out.  But your reporter completely missed, or turned a blind eye, to some broader policy decisions and developments that many members and staff, especially outside of Los Angeles, find very troubling.

    Get into the field, out from under the HQ shadow, and dig a little deeper next time.

  • guest

     I am a major critic of the merger and David White -- but I'm also a working Actor in the largest market (Hollywood).

    If people were lied to -- that's wrong.

    However -- these are the (rough) stats --- the dues that pay the freight, that negotiate the contracts and hire the Employees come OVERWHELMINGLY from two states (California and New York) these two states account for something like 85-86% of all earnings that flow into the Union.

    Breaking it down even more, just TWO cities (about 20 zip codes in and around Manhattan and Hollywood/So Cal) account something like 78% of all earnings.

    If this were a restaurant chain selling burgers or whatnot that would be like Flagship locations in just New York and So Cal selling MILLIONS of burgers, while dozens of other locations struggle to sell thousands -- and most lose money, day in, year in and year out.

    Can we "sell more burgers" in smaller locations?

    Go to any major bookstore or go online and look up the dozens of "How to be a pro Actor" books that are out there.

    My guess is that 95% of these books will tell those who aspire to be professionals "Move to New York or Hollywood".

    The day that hundreds or thousands of talented/trained young Actors all decide to have careers in places like Dallas or Portland it may be time to add a brick and mortar office in these areas.

  • Mary McDonald-Lewis

    Your "journalist" ought to be ashamed of herself for accepting SAG-AFTRA propaganda provided by the  organization's PR machine and featuring two actors who are NOT losing their office (in fact they are gaining $500,000 in new carpets and drapes while 13 thriving locals are being permanently shut down); certainly, they have no insider knowledge of the David White's overall plan. I feed bad for them: they were used.

    If your journalist had bothered to research any further than the PR the union spun her way, she'd have found there is a powerful counter argument to the union's disastrous decision.  Here is just a peek at that perspective - below find SAG-AFTRA propaganda, quoted directly from its PR machine, and what many thousands of members hold as the truth.

    SAG-AFTRA PR SPIN: "Our members live and work daily in areas throughout the nation and globe, and we will never be able to establish or maintain brick-and-mortar offices in all of these locations."

    THE TRUTH: To claim that it is reasonable to close a demonstrably successful, thriving office in a growing industry base because the union cannot open a brick-and-mortar office in Croatia for the three months that Clooney is shooting there is just plain stupid, and absurd. The logic is flawed and condescends to union members living in locals outside of LA/NY. This is a union with no respect for its members.SAG-AFTRA PR SPIN: "Despite this, and whether or not we have a physical office in a particular locale, we are still responsible for enforcing our contracts, and ensuring that claims and payments are made to our members."THE TRUTH: Translated, this means "We are here to take members' initiation fees and dues, issue checks and levee fines, PERIOD." There is NO plan for organizing; NO plan for fighting the growth of non-union work and Right to Work incursion; NO plan to prevent union member attrition in the locals who have no office or staff. SAG-AFTRA is shifting from an organizing UNION model to a service-only CORPORATE model, with sole focus on immediate revenue-generation; preference to high earners and union-dense regions. This is a union with no plan, and no future.SAG-AFTRA PR SPIN: "This restructuring effort focuses our staff in 15 major media markets around the country, and allows us to provide better and more effective services to all members, wherever they work."THE TRUTH: The union ALREADY fails to provide decent service with an appropriate number of staff and offices. Now, 10 locals will lose their offices and 60 staff members staff. 11,000 members will be cared for by 5 union staff members. How can reducing offices and reducing staff possibly improve service? If union staff thinks this was a good idea, why are they resigning in droves? If union staff thinks this is a good idea, why are they sending messages to Portland, thanking us for fighting back? 11,000 members + 5 staff members = improved service? You do the math: it doesn't add up.This is a union lying to you about what its real reasons are for shutting down Portland and 9 other locals.SAG-AFTRA PR SPIN: "That is our goal and, with a better alignment of our limited resources, we expect to deliver on this goal more effectively as we move forward. We are responsible for enforcing our contracts, ensuring that claims and payments are made, and supporting our members."THE TRUTH: How is it that two financially healthy unions, SAG and AFTRA, are broke now that they're merged? For years the boards of both unions were given financial reports, and each report stated the union was in good shape financially. So either one or the other or both of these two unions engaged in malfeasance of a criminal nature; or it is not as broke as the PR machine is telling you and the union is not shutting down locals across the country and firing our staff to save money. It's doing it to drive work back to LA and NY. In any case, it is lying to you.Members across the country, listening to SAG-AFTRA PR spin, are saying "that doesn't add up." And it doesn't. That this union thinks so little of its members that it would lie so carelessly is extremely disturbing. And if it will lie about its reasons for shutting down Portland and 9 other locals, what makes you think it's telling the truth about what a wonderful improvement this will be for the members?