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Digital Hollywood

How SAG-AFTRA Navigated Chaos

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

Ron Perlman

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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