SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris is seeking two more years in office to finish the work she started with the merger of SAG and AFTRA in 2012. “Finish,” however, is a word she rarely uses, as she sees the continuing development of the union as a work in progress. Ballots in the union’s ongoing election, which is in the homestretch, will be counted August 24.
“We’re now in the fifth year of the merger,” she told Deadline, “and my focus is to keep us on a steady pace to keep us moving forward and to have stable growth.”
Carteris was part of the team that finally pushed the long-dreamed of merger over the top, and remembers the words of one of the advisors who had been brought in to facilitate it. “He said that merger is the beginning of the work, and that it takes five years of commitment to create a stable merger. We’re in our fifth year now, and I feel that this is a crucial time to keep that focus that’s needed to keep us moving forward.”
Her accomplishments in the short time she’s been in office have been considerable. She chaired the negotiating committee for the recently concluded film and TV contract, which was overwhelmingly approved by the union’s members despite opposition from her two main presidential rivals, Esai Morales and Peter Antico.
The merger of the SAG and AFTRA health plans was completed on her watch, and she’s hopeful that the trustees of the SAG and AFTRA pension plans can find a way to merge them as well. “The trustees of the pension plans are working diligently, based on all the research, to see what’s best for the members,” she said.
Organizing non-union commercial productions has been a top priority, and she’s hopeful that the union’s ongoing strike against selected videogame companies – which now, in its 302nd day, is the longest strike in SAG history – can be resolved. Residuals remain the key sticking point – the major companies don’t want to pay them at all – but so far more than 50 independent companies have signed agreements promulgated by the union that give performers residuals amounting to a full-day’s pay for each 500,000 units sold, up to four secondary payments if the game sells 2 million units.
“We’re interested and willing to go back to the bargaining table to find a fair deal for our membership,” she said. “I hope that we’ll be able to make that happen, and the promulgated contract lends itself to that very thing.”
“I’ve worked under nearly all of our contracts,” she said, and if elected, will help shape the bargaining positions on many of them, including the upcoming talks for a pair of new animation contracts, and in 2019, the guild’s commercials contract.
Carteris said that one of her greatest joys as president has been the organizing of Telemundo, whose Spanish-language telenovela performers voted overwhelmingly in March to be represented by the union. It was the first time in 65 years that a group of actors at a major TV network had sought an NLRB-sanctioned unionization election, and she was on hand when the ballots were counted.
“The pile of paper ballots kept getting higher and higher with each yes vote,” she recalled proudly. “It was amazing. Men and women in the room were crying. It speaks volumes to these performers and their commitment to be represented in a fair and honest way, and it spoke so profoundly to the importance of unionism. I’m really proud of them, and right now were in the midst of negotiating that contract.”
She also helped lead the anti-ageism battle to get legislation passed to allow performers to haves their ages removed from IMDb and the subscription-based IMDb Pro – a crusade that’s currently winding its way through the courts. “We’ll take it all the way to the Supreme Court if we have to,” she said.
Carteris, formerly the union’s executive vice president who became president by the unanimous vote of the national board upon the death of Ken Howard in March 2016, came to her union activism the hard way – through a serious injury on the set.
In 2007, the former Beverly Hills 90210 star was she shooting a fight scene on the film Past Tense that required her 6’5” co-star to grab her in a headlock and drag her down the stairs. There were numerous takes – more than 20 – and when it was over, she’d suffered a serious neck injury. “I lost the feeling in my hands and my face was partially paralyzed and lost my ability to speak clearly. It was really a challenging time.”
But during her years of recovery, the union came through for her. “I received SAG health coverage that helped me through my treatments, and the residuals from all my work helped me support my family. I feel very blessed.”
And that’s when she decided to “pay it forward” by getting involved in the union to make sure that it could continue to help other performers as it had helped her. In 2008, she was on the founding slate of pro-merger candidates called Unite for Strength, and is now its standard bearer.
She said that being the union’s president — which is an unpaid position — “Is now more than ever before pretty much a full-time job, and you better show up and do the work.” And that work, she said, isn’t finished.