Sunday, March 1, 2009

Do actors need unions and can they survive? Missive #1

Interesting to think about.  I want to be clear that Im not advocating  either of the broadcast unions should go under but current economics combined with advancing technology and clouds of labor unrest on the horizon make the possibility more real than I think its otherwise been in at least a generation and as such worth considering how exactly one might weather the subsequent storm.  

Generally my politics incline me to be pro-union but Im not  sure it is a model that works in  every instance and actors may not be well served by it ultimately.   To my mind unions work best when the nature of the labor in question makes it difficult for any one individual to create substantially more relative value for himself.   A laborer on an assembly line for instance can only work as fast as the assembly process allows so his earning potential becomes disengaged from his ability, giving the suits a disproportionate advantage in setting wages.   In that case the value of labor is greater than the sum of its parts and collective bargaining enhances the individual's negotiating leverage.

But that aint show biz, or shouldn't be anyway.   From the actor perspective the business is predicated entirely on our unique-ey-ness.  We jump through hoop,  after hoop,  after hoop (usually without being paid for it) to demonstrate to director, producer, ad agency, client, that we are a rare commodity, one in a million,  a precious precious flower.  

Now here comes the contradiction...

After being run through an audition grinder designed to identify our particular loveliness we turn around and forfeit any wage leverage that uniqueness might confer to a collectively bargained wage, which in reality also functions as an earning ceiling.  So my experience, unique abilities, and winning smile have no market value in reality and some other punk actor in the world with less experience, pedestrian abilities, and a phony ass smile commands the same money I  do on a job per job basis.   AND we pay a 10% premium, plus dues, for the privilege of undercutting our real market earning potential.  That doesn't strike me as sustainable, or even particularly necessary.

More to come....


  1. Gotta differ with you on this one, buddy.

    We, individual actors, are always free to demand more from our Producer "friends" than the scale rates that were collectively bargained for to ensure that, as members of SAG and AFTRA, we are guaranteed a MINIMUM level of compensation.

    If someone casting/hiring for a particular gig is so blown away by our audition and truly feels that we're the only one right for the part, they'll pay above-scale for our services, believe me.

    In Chicago, I agree, it's not often that this happens, but, if you have a decent agent + the resolution/option to not work for less than you think you're worth, you certainly don't have to.

    In solidarity...

    Scott Benjaminson

  2. You're absolutely right of course that we're not compelled to work for scale and I've never been shy about turning offers down but its not an especially effective negotiating position. Rather than bid up my rate I effectively price myself out of certain kinds of work which doesn't increase earning potential long run.

    I'll write more later but I tend to think that absent SAG/AFTRA minimums actors would see their earning potential increase once the supply of actors dwindled to a state of equilibrium. Hard medicine I know.