Workforce: SAG a hard-working union

By T.K. MALOY, UPI Deputy Business Editor

WASHINGTON, Oct. 24 (UPI) -- "It's called show business for a reason" said actress Melissa Gilbert, president of the Screen Actors Guild.

If the guild's leader wants to tell people one thing about the nearly 100,000-member union that she heads -- it is that SAG is made up of hard working Americans like every other labor union.


"I think that if I can impart a single message to people ... all of the entertainment labor unions, they are just that, labor unions. That we as actors are part of a much larger group in this country, of some 13 million members of labor unions," Gilbert told United Press International this week while visiting the AFL-CIO, a federation of more than 65 labor unions.

"What people are seeing, and reading about, those fine actors who are earning $20 million a picture, is not indicative of the lifestyle and experience of the average SAG member," Gilbert said.


According to SAG figures, the average member earns $7,500 a year in the acting profession, meaning that inevitably most SAG members at the lower end of the earning scale probably must work other jobs in addition to acting.

Founded in 1933, the Screen Actors Guild's primary responsibility is negotiating collective bargaining agreements that establish minimum wages and working conditions for its members. SAG became a member of the American Federation of Labor when the Associated Actors and Artistes of America granted its charter in 1935.

Gilbert added that the work of the average actor or actress can often be itinerant.

"The other thing to remember ... that in the entertainment industry ... when our job is over, we (SAG members) are fired, that's it. There is no continuing guarantee of employment from one job to the next," she said.

The 38-year-old Gilbert's roles have included a wide range of television series, movies and made-for-TV films. While often remembered for the famous "Little House on the Prairie" series, Gilbert has more recently played what she calls the "distressed woman" genre, joking that this has included everything from brain tumors to divorce. She has been a member of SAG since the age of 2, starting her career at a youthful age in TV commercials.


From her Washington visit, Gilbert was flying back to Los Angeles for talks about possibly staring in a "Western drama," though she declined to comment further.

The SAG head was visiting the AFL-CIO, to be honored Tuesday night by the AFL-CIO's Labor Heritage Foundation, which works to strengthen the labor movement through the use of music and the arts.

AFL-CIO head John Sweeny praised Gilbert, saying she "is leading an industry whose workers are facing challenges much like those faced by workers throughout our country," Since December of 2001, Gilbert has been a member of the AFL-CIO's executive council.

"I am pleased that the Labor Heritage Foundation recognizes that most performers are journeymen laborers who can barely earn a living as actors," said Gilbert during the award ceremony. "It's an honor to receive this award in the name of all hard working actors."

Gilbert told UPI that one of her key goals as head of SAG is to get members steady work.

Other key goals for SAG, Gilbert said, include combating the trend in movie making migrating out of the United States, because of cost, which results in American actors loosing jobs. In particular, the production of made for TV movies, which has seen a notable migration from the United States to Canada.


"One our biggest issues at the moment is trying to stem the tide of runaway (migrating) production ...people (entertainment industry) have discovered a cheaper way to make films and television and commercials, and they have been doing that for quite a while" Gilbert said. "So one of the biggest issues facing me upon my election a year ago (to head of SAG), and still facing the guild ... is how to be competitive with other countries -- particularly Canada -- without declaring an economic war."

Gilbert noted that Canada has a wage-based tax credit of 30 percent, which has lured production companies northward with the motivation of hiring actors and actresses cheaper than in the United States.

The Screen Actors Guild was involved in discussions last spring with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers over a SAG rule -- known as Rule One -- barring union members from working in productions that are not covered by guild contracts.

According to SAG, overseas movie and TV production using union actors working without union agreements has resulted in a loss of $23 million to the guild's pension and health fund since 1996. The union projects another $35.8 million in lost pension and health fund revenues over the next five years without Global Rule One.


SAG spokeswoman Ilyanne Kichaven noted the mixed success the union has had in terms of producers adhering to guild rules -- citing such blockbusters as "Gladiator" (shot in Spain) with was a signatory to SAG rules and "Lord of the Rings" (shot in New Zealand) which was not a signatory to guild rules.

SAG's Rule One has been enforced domestically since the earliest days of the union, with penalties including fines, suspension and expulsion for members who have violated the rule. Starting on May 1, the union began enforcing a Global Rule One, which has thus far largely met with success according to SAG officials.

For Gilbert is all about SAG members getting treated fairly for their work -- not only in wage compensation, but also health care, and pension plans.

"In the grand scheme of things, Americans don't see entertainment as an industry, they don't see filmmaking and the distribution of film and television as an industry, because it hits them on such a personal and emotional level," Gilbert said. "But it's called show business for a reason."

Another key issue that Gilbert and SAG are taking on is diversity in the entertainment workplace, with the actress saying that persons of color, Hispanic actors, older actors and disabled actors are ill represented in the industry.


Gilbert added, however, that it's a "chicken and egg" problem with various audiences criticizing the lack of diversity, "yet they are watching programming that doesn't have a lot of diversity in it."

"Are we fulfilling what the public wants, or are they just watching what we put in front of them," she conjectured. "That's where we get into the chicken or egg theory."

For Gilbert, though, it's "up to us as and industry" to make viewers more comfortable with seeing people of diverse colors and abilities "in roles you wouldn't normally see them in. "

She added that there has been in increase in the entertainment industry diversity, but that there still is a long way to go.

Gilbert is the latest in a long line of SAG presidents that has included Ronald Reagan, Charlton Heston and Edward Asner.

(Pat Nason, UPI's Hollywood Reporter, contributed to this report.)

(Workforce is a bi-weekly labor and workplace column that highlights issues of key importance to American workers of all occupations. Send comments to: [email protected] )

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