As the long-simmering jurisdictional dispute between Actors’ Equity and SAG-AFTRA continues to unfold in public, Equity executive director Mary McColl today disputed SAG-AFTRA’s claim that Equity had asked for a “waiver” to represent actors who perform in taped stage presentations during the pandemic – a jurisdiction SAG-AFTRA has long claimed as its own.
Yesterday, SAG-AFTRA said that “It is unconscionable for Equity staff to accuse SAG-AFTRA of disrupting relationships and leaving workers behind when we are offering the very waiver Equity’s leadership asked us to grant them. They never would have requested a waiver if they did not clearly understand and recognize our jurisdiction in this area.”
“That is false,” McColl said today in a statement to Deadline. “Equity staff and elected leadership were clear, consistent and transparent that temporary COVID-19 remote agreements were necessary, but did not seek a ‘waiver.’”
“This is either historical revisionism or a complete fabrication,” a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said Thursday. “Either way, AEA staff may be forgetting a number of communications specifically referencing SAG-AFTRA granting AEA a waiver to work in our jurisdiction. We are still willing to do so, as long as it includes clear recognition of our historical jurisdiction over recorded and broadcast media.”
The waiver SAG-AFTRA offered would temporarily cede jurisdiction over taped theatrical presentations to Equity during the “Pandemic Period,” ending on April 30, 2021, unless both unions agree to an extension. And it comes with strict limitations: the taped shows can’t be exhibited on streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO Max, Disney+, AppleTV+, CBS All Access, and Peacock – which would fall under SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdictions – but instead can only be viewed on restricted digital platforms “that can be accessed only by ticketholders or subscribers of the existing Equity bargaining partner.” An Equity source said that many of its employers don’t even have such platforms.
See SAG-AFTRA’s proposed waiver here.
SAG-AFTRA’s proposed waiver would also limit audiences to no more than twice the capacity of the theaters where the performances are held, not to exceed 950 persons, multiplied “by the normal number of performances presented in that theater, not to exceed eight performances per week, multiplied by the number of weeks the performance is offered.”
Back in July, following several meetings about their competing jurisdictional claims over the work, Equity president Kate Shindle sent a letter to the elected leaders of SAG-AFTRA – president Gabrielle Carteris, executive vice president Rebecca Damon, and secretary-treasurer Camryn Manheim – expressing her dismay about the increasingly bitter dispute.
“I recognize that SAG-AFTRA believes that jurisdiction is simple: if a show is being done for a live audience, it is Equity work; if a camera or microphone is turned on, it is SAG-AFTRA’s,” Shindle wrote on July 21. “The reality is that jurisdiction is more complex than this. There are numerous instances in which performers working on an Equity contract are filmed or recorded, and many of these arrangements are embedded in mature Equity contracts as examples of the kinds of work we have traditionally covered (and need to continue to organize). To sign the proposed document as SAG-AFTRA staff has revised it would place us in an impossible position.”
“We came to you for help and support, primarily so that we could continue working with our long-established bargaining partners during an unprecedented time in which every single brick-and-mortar Equity theater is shut down,” she told SAG-AFTRA’s leaders. “From our vantage point, it appears that SAG-AFTRA is instead seeking to leverage the pandemic in the interest of dramatically expanding its traditional jurisdiction at Equity’s expense.”
“At our July 8th meeting,” she wrote, “I believe we reached an understanding that SAG-AFTRA would not stand in the way of Equity’s work – even if it included an online/remote component – for the duration of this health crisis.”
Shindle also noted that employers were using the dispute between the two unions to drive a harder bargain to obtain the services of her members. According to Equity, over 240 stage productions that were taped for remote viewing during the pandemic have been performed under its contract, while more than 60 have been performed under SAG-AFTRA’s contracts.
“We were very clear,” she wrote, “that the perceived space between our two organizations is being weaponized against us at the bargaining table, and SAG-AFTRA representatives expressed a desire to support a sibling union during this difficult time. Although we immediately drafted and sent a written document to this effect, we are currently stalled by SAG-AFTRA’s demand that Equity affirmatively cede future jurisdiction over remote work, other than what is specifically covered by our current bargaining relationships.”
“We need to stop this,” Shindle wrote back in July. “We need to agree that while there are certainly larger questions to be addressed, that is a conversation for later.”
Equity, she said, is only asking for the same type of agreement that the American Guild of Musical Artists, which represents opera and ballet performances, has with its employers that allow for the taping of performances. “We believe that AGMA has the right to work in its own arena, even as distribution models evolve, and that the same is true for Actors’ Equity,” she wrote. “I also cannot understand how, while expressing support for our clearly-stated need to creatively collaborate with employers on contingency plans for work that would otherwise be performed live in brick-and-mortar spaces (readings, new projects, virtual ticketing, etc.), SAG-AFTRA has repeatedly offered deferred-payment, minimum wage contracts to our employers that a) undercut our rates, b) were built for low-budget films, rather than theatre, c) do not even contemplate stage managers, and, most important, d) virtually guarantee that absolutely nobody working these agreements will have any shot at qualifying for health coverage during a global pandemic.”
An Equity source said, “We’ve had a number of members who told us they were put on deferred SAG-AFTRA compensation agreements and haven’t been paid yet.” In addition to actors, Equity contracts also cover members who work as stage managers, who aren’t covered by SAG-AFTRA contracts. The health plans for both unions, meanwhile, have announced that they will be raising eligibility requirements on Jan. 1, 2021, to stave off huge funding deficits due to the lack of work for their members.
Shindle told SAG-AFTRA leaders in July that this is not the time to be squabbling over jurisdiction. “We are willing to reexamine these issues once we reach some semblance of normalcy again. It is unreasonable and unfair for SAG-AFTRA to make these demands that we do so during a pandemic, when our entire membership is unemployed and our industry is shut down.”
SAG-AFTRA, however, said that this is not a time for Equity to be “poaching” its jurisdiction. “This is SAG-AFTRA’s historic and traditional jurisdiction and has been since 1933,” SAG-AFTRA said in a statement on Wednesday. “They know this, but are acting out of desperation. We covered Jesus Christ Superstar decades ago along with many, many other projects including Hamilton on Disney+ just this summer. We aren’t claiming anything new, because it is already SAG-AFTRA members’ work.
“We understand that these are desperate times for Equity’s leadership, but poaching SAG-AFTRA jurisdiction and attacking another labor union is not what we expected from a sister union that we have been trying to help – at their request.”
Carteris and SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White told their members on Wednesday that SAG-AFTRA “has been and remains ready to finalize the development of this waiver that will help Actors’ Equity Association members survive the shutdown while preserving SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction.”
Equity’s McColl said yesterday that “SAG-AFTRA is looking to use a pandemic to claim jurisdiction in Equity workplaces now and into the future in a way they haven’t had before. At a time when solidarity is required, SAG-AFTRA has chosen to disrupt the relationship between employers and actors that has existed for years, if not decades. Ultimately, the workers are the ones who are left behind.”