Actors’ Unions to Each Other: Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat

Acting Unions Face Off

A Tale as Old as Time

The work for stage actors in NYC and the US at large has dwindled since the pandemic came to town, but one segment for stage performers has actually picked up: streaming performances. The number of streaming platforms and high profile digital performances or adaptions of stage shows has increased dramatically.

Powerful streaming platforms including Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+ are latching on to stage gems new and old, some filmed on the stage and others converted from stage to film. Recent Broadway hits like Hamilton, The Prom, What the Constitution Means to Me, and The Boys In the Band along with this year’s newcomer, Diana, have all hit streaming platforms since the Broadway shutdown in March. But which union should govern these performances on behalf of the performers – Actors’ Equity Association (AEA), the labor union that represents 51,000 theater actors and stage managers, or the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the union that represents 160,000 film, television and radio performers? Currently the actors’ unions are locked in a vicious battle over this question.

The Root of the Issue

AEA, which has negotiated contracts in the past with theaters for streaming productions, believes that SAG-AFTRA is seeking to undercut its contracts by negotiating lower-paying deals. In turn, SAG-AFTRA has claimed that it has always held the domain over broadcastings.

According to AEA, SAG-AFTRA has signed contracts for at least 60 streaming productions made by theaters that would, absent the pandemic, have been presented on stage to live audiences. This is upsetting to AEA because they believe that the members of SAG-AFTRA have a better chance of finding work on filmed material during the pandemic as compared with their members’ likelihood of performing to live audiences on stage during this health crisis.

Although actors may be members of both unions, AEA has alleged that actors are generally paid less under the SAG-AFTRA contracts. In fact, AEA alleges that its stage managers are often cut out entirely from the SAG-AFTRA contracted projects because, unlike AEA, they are not covered by SAG-AFTRA. They are concerned that SAG-AFTRA is encroaching on contracting with their theaters, especially since AEA has historically been the only union of the two with live theater contracts. AEA alleges that as a result of SAG-AFTRA’s actions, actors have lost at least $600,000 in earnings and $150,000 in employer contributions to their health insurance fund.

Unfinished Business

SAG-AFTRA offered a cease fire to AEA if AEA agreed to sign a waiver that would temporarily cede SAG-AFTRA’s claimed jurisdiction over taped theatrical presentations to AEA during the “Pandemic Period,” which is slated to end on April 30, 2021. However under SAG-AFTRA’s proposal, such ceded recordings would be limited in scope. Notably, the ceasefire would restrict use of streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO Max, Disney+, AppleTV+, CBS All Access, and Peacock to SAG-AFTRA performances. Further, under SAG-AFTRA’s proposed waived terms, audiences would need to purchase tickets or have subscriptions to view AEA’s digital performances, and audiences would be limited in size to no more than twice the capacity of the theaters where the performances are held, up to a maximum of 950 persons, and up to a maximum of eight performances a week.

AEA to date has refused to sign the waiver, claiming that SAG-AFTRA is seeking to leverage the pandemic in the interest of dramatically expanding its traditional jurisdiction at the theater union’s expense. AEA noted that at least 240 stage productions recorded for remote viewing have been performed under the AEA contract vehicle since the pandemic began. But SAG-AFTRA has also covered digital theatrical recordings and showing in the past, including Hamilton on Disney+.

After negotiations over the waiver failed, SAG-AFTRA’s national board of directors unanimously approved a resolution reaffirming the union’s jurisdiction over the taping of live theater productions, and each union continues to accuse the other of encroaching on its jurisdiction.

SAG-AFTRA filed a formal complaint in October with the Associated Actors and Artistes of America. Along with its complaint, SAG-AFTRA requested the appointment of a neutral mediator in an attempt to re-engage AEA in negotiations on this matter. It remains to be seen what affect this maneuver will have on negotiations or how the matter will be resolved.