He may not win, but Robert B. Martin Jr., candidate for president of SAG-AFTRA, decided that he had to take a stand for working class actors. “These are strange times,” he said of the internal machinations at the 160,000-member performers’ union, “and if I win, things are going to change.” Ballots will be counted Thursday.
“The most important thing to remember is that when we negotiate contracts, we’re negotiating the base scale,” he said in a telephone interview. “The celebrities are doing fine. They have agents and managers who negotiate their above-scale payments and everything from their dietary needs to the size of their trailers. But the working class performers have been forgotten, and that’s who I represent.”
Martin, who played “The Gimp” in Slackers, said that the first thing he’d do if elected is to bring more transparency to the guild. “First of all, I’d ask the board to do a forensic audit of our union’s finances and of our pension and health plans.” To do the work, he says, he’d create a blue ribbon committee made up of members who are professional CPAs, bookkeepers and auditors. He’d also bring in a parliamentarian to ensure “equal opportunity for all parties and independents” at national board meetings.
Then he’d set to work to get members’ residuals paid faster. “Having to wait two or three months after SAG-AFTRA receives them is not acceptable,” he said.
At the same time, he’d update Station 12, the union’s online clearance process provided to casting professionals to ensure that performers being employed under the union’s collective bargaining agreements are in good standing with the union. “It’s outdated,” said Martin, who’s also a computer code architect and a veteran casting director. “It’s sometimes taking three to five days to clear a performer, and by that time, they’ve already been on set, worked and gone home. That’s a major issue that needs to be fixed immediately.”
Then he’d launch an “outreach program to turn nonunion projects into union projects” – something he says he’s done on numerous occasions as a casting director, performer and advisor. “The most important reason I’d be an effective president is that I’m the only candidate who’s taken non-union projects to union status,” he said. “And if I can do it on multiple levels, showing producers how cost effective it can be to hire the best union talent, then we can all do it together to make the union much stronger and get actors back to work.”
On a parallel track, he said, he’d make “a big push” to bring disaffected actors back into the union fold – actors who have opted for financial core status and can’t vote or run for office, but pay that portion of dues that goes directly to covering the cost of the union’s administration and collective bargaining.
But for any of this to happen, he said, the union has got to become more open and less secretive. “There’s way too much secrecy,” he said, noting that he can’t even get union leaders to tell him how many financial core members there are. “Transparency is the biggest issue and it shouldn’t be that way,” he said.
Martin, who has eschewed mudslinging against his fellow candidates, said that name-calling “is not what it’s about. It’s about getting actors back to work and running our union effectively. And it’s now up to our members to decide, with more than 15% voting, hopefully.” That’s how many members voted for the new film and TV contract – a dismal turnout that he says should be a wake-up call to the union’s leaders.