EXCLUSIVE: SAG-AFTRA presidential candidate Jane Austin, who’s currently the guild’s national secretary-treasurer, has a plan to fix the union. She tells Deadline that SAG-AFTRA “has lost its way in its core mission – to serve and protect the needs of the entire membership, all 25 locals, all categories, so they can earn a living wage. As president, I would have the experience, the mandate, and the independence to get my union back on course.”
Austin, who’s running as an independent candidate, will face SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris, who’s running on the Unite for Strength slate, and Matthew Modine, who is running on the Membership First slate. Ballots will be mailed out July 29 and will be counted August 28.
Austin, one of Hollywood’s top stuntwomen, tells Deadline that there are three key areas in which the union “can do better, where we must do better”: protecting residuals, stemming the flow of non-union productions – which she described as “rampant” – and empowering the guild’s locals.
Here are her views on some pressing SAG-AFTRA topics:
“I would tackle head on the residuals issue that has weakened our union, and has made it more difficult to nearly impossible for our members to earn a living wage as a professional performer in the industry. I learned this firsthand recently when I received a residuals check from a SAG-AFTRA job I did for a network television show. When I opened the envelope and saw the minimal amount I was in shock. Compared to previous checks before the last several contracts that have been negotiated, the amount would be at least in the hundreds. This check barely cracked two digits.
“It is residual checks that help performers maintain a living wage as they go out for new work. Performers rely on these checks. They rely on union leadership to protect their rates. But this is no longer happening. Unfortunately SAG-AFTRA members are not sharing in any of the profits that are coming from all the “new media” that is being created. Instead, the companies, the employers, are using the term as a loophole to circumvent paying the rates that professional performers deserve.
“[Content created by streaming services] are basically ‘one-offs’ that don’t re-run in other places. Performers basically only get one shot to earn on a project. By the way, every content creator, from Netflix to HBO to Disney to ABC, will be able to define themselves as ‘streamers,’ which is yet another way they will try not to properly compensate for the services of a professional performer.
“Because of the changes in the business and residuals, members’ pension and health contributions are also adversely affected. For example, when I started in the business and worked on a network TV show, the first residual I received was 100% compensation because that is the residual formula for network reruns. So I would receive my daily which today is $980.00, with a downward escalation of compensation with every use. In 2019, networks are not rerunning their shows on network, or cable, but are going straight to streaming platforms. That residual is $20 for a 90-day period. There is a huge monetary deficit for our members, not only for compensation of residual income, but also for pension and health contributions. This is one of the major factors affecting our membership’s ability to make a living, and support themselves.
“Why is this happening? Well, for one thing, employers in negotiations will always see how much they can get away with, and when you combine that with the union’s negotiating strategy to just be grateful they’re still getting jobs, residuals are not protected.
“So how do you change this? You elect a leader, like myself, who has the experience and the strength to know what battles to pick, where to draw the line, and how to use the inherent leverage that we as performers have – without us, professional performers, what is the audience watching exactly? – to fight for better rates that are in line with cost of living numbers, and which ensure performers can earn a living wage.”
“A big issue that every local is facing is losing work to non-union productions. Not only does it negatively affect a member’s opportunity to earn a living wage, but it erodes the strength of the union. Unfortunately, non-union production is rampant, and needs to be greatly curtailed, which currently is not being done.
“I would address this issue by creating and promote a major outreach and education program to producers across the country to teach them how easy it actually is to become signatory, and how the union is there to help a production, not hurt it by adding financial burdens on top of the budget, which could jeopardize the production, as well as the employment opportunities for performers in that area. I led a program like this for SAG-AFTRA members in the Palm Springs area, and it worked really well.
“Here outreach and education campaign would consist of direct meetings with producers and productions companies centered near every local across the country. Panels and workshops would also be conducted to further communicate the message that SAG-AFTRA wants to work with producers to bring union production to every part of the country, and that we’re here to solve problems, not make things more complicated or prohibitive.”
Austin said that she would better educate members about the guild’s Global Rule One, which prohibits members from working for non-signatory companies.
“This is a promise we make to each other that we will not work without a union contract. Global Rule One strengthens inherent protections won in the collective bargaining agreements by setting a professional standard, solidifying our bargaining power and cementing our influence. The consequences of violating Global Rule One are devastating. When members work off the card, it lowers the professional bar, degrades earning power, erodes the hard-won gains of our union and, simply put, is not acceptable.
“[Members] need a union they feel they can rely on, and turn to with their issues, not one that they think is there to get in the way of their employment. Ultimately it doesn’t just come down to the message, but how that message is being communicated, and who is communicating that message. When you have a leader who sets a tone of inclusivity and education and communication and transparency not only within the union but in relation to the industry as a whole, only then will we begin to seriously curb non-union productions, and motivate producers to go union and stay union.”
Empowering the Locals
SAG-AFTRA has 25 locals across the country, but Austin believes that too much power is concentrated in Los Angeles and New York.
“The perception is that SAG-AFTRA is only Los Angeles or New York. While LA and New York make up a majority of the membership, the 23 locals other than LA or New York have more membership combined than New York – approximately 44,000 to 36,000 members.
“In order to create more solidarity in the union, which would create more strength and resolve in its members, I would create an education and engagement campaign inside the union, and within the industry by partnering up with other organizations and individuals, to increase awareness about the other locals across the country, how important it is to support them, how important it is for a local production be a union production, and offer ways to incentivize these productions to go union.
“Because this is not being done locals feel like they are not connected to the union at large, nor do they believe that they are being supported, which increases member and voter apathy, which negatively affects everything from the casting process, to on set production, to contract negotiations in the boardroom. Quite simply, the more isolated these locals feel, the less motivated they are to support its leaders, let alone union policies, which only plays into the hands of employers who might be looking to exploit them. Of course, not every employer is a ‘bad actor,’ however a weakened union, with disgruntled members, allows them to negotiate much more advantageous deals for themselves, not the professional performer.
“Why is this happening? Because the union has done things a certain way for a period of time, and change is difficult. One of the major things union leadership does is create this hierarchy amongst the locals, and not include them in the process. A specific example is the current president’s ‘Presidential task force,’ which is made up of the president’s appointees. As president, I would disband this task force and create a new one which is made of every local president and director as a part of it, which will create an environment where it’s clear that national is supporting local. Local presidents need to be empowered to run and shape their local to meet the specific needs of their members, but with the intention of inclusivity, not consolidating power at the top, they can do this under the national umbrella, and we can all be on the same page, which is not what’s happening currently.
“There’s also no real incentive to support the ‘other locals’ if your party is composed of mostly LA or New York local ‘celebrity’ candidates who have no intention of serving, but towing the party line. It’s all connected.
“So how will I change this? How will I do this differently? It’s time to empower our locals. It’s time to support our locals that are trying to achieve tax incentives for production in their states by being an active part in those discussions and proposals and incentives.
“Another crucial way to strengthen our locals and increase inclusiveness is to improve local staff contract training, and customer service. In order to this National leadership needs to create a unified system that has every Local President and staff on the same page, rowing in the same direction, and accountable for the service they’re providing the membership.
“We need to improve training of staff regarding union regulations to help prevent contract violations and expedite claims quickly when they do occur. We need to improve speed and customer service culture to please, instead of frustrate potential employers and members when trying to produce union content.
“The only way to achieve this is top down. It’s the president who sets the tone, who molds the culture, who is the one responsible to unify and to engender trust. And that is what I plan to do and to be as president of SAG-AFTRA. I work for the membership so the membership can work.”