SAG-AFTRA’s Gabrielle Carteris & David White On The State Of The Union One Year Into Covid

Gabrielle Carteris David White SAG-AFTRA
Mega; AP

EXCLUSIVE: SAG-AFTRA today is celebrating the ninth anniversary of the merger of SAG and AFTRA – two competing unions that came together in 2012 to work as one. In a wide-ranging Q&A conducted in advance of Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards, guild president Gabrielle Carteris and national executive director David White reflected on the state of the union one year into the Covid-19 pandemic. They also looked to the challenges ahead, including issues of diversity, sexual harassment in the workplace, and the possibility that vaccinations may become mandatory for casts and crews as film and television production struggles to return to pre-pandemic levels.

The pandemic has been especially rough for Carteris, who recently finished work on a film that was shot under the industry’s strict Covid-19 protocols: her husband’s uncle, A.J. Popky, died of Covid-19 in February. Her husband and two daughters also contracted the virus, and one of her daughters still has symptoms but is doing OK. Carteris, who has not come down with it, recently got her first vaccination shot.

Because of their schedules, Carteris and White were interviewed separately.

DEADLINE: First question, how are you and the union holding up one year into the pandemic?

WHITE: We are emerging from this distressing year very well, I’m happy to say. This has been a year of extreme challenge, but our membership and the union have proven to be resilient – as resilient as we could possibly hope for, and we are, thankfully, poised to replenish and move forward. The job has been very hard emotionally, given some of the decisions that needed to be made to protect the membership and to protect the institution, but these jobs are filled with challenges every year, all year round. Good leaders take that in stride, which is, I’m happy to say, what I and our leadership team were able to do.

CARTERIS: We’re actually doing better now, having had a year of working on the protocols and getting people back to work, but it’s been a challenging year, not just for us, but for the industry, the country and the world. We’re all sharing a lot of those same pain points, but I’m truly impressed and proud of the members. They’ve really coalesced around each other and been mindful of the work we had to do with the protocols so that we could open the sets and keep working. We’re going to get through this, and we’re going to get through this strong. I’m happy to say that.

My family lost an uncle a month ago to Covid. It was very sad. My whole family had Covid. I was very fortunate in that I did not get it. I’ve had my first vaccine, and it was emotional, getting that first shot. I was surprised how emotional it was for me, and I look forward to getting the second shot and being part of the healing of this country, for sure.

DEADLINE: What worries you most about the future of the film and television industry, short-term and long-term?

WHITE: The changing business models and their impact on working professionals in this industry. The advance of technology is inevitable and usually is a good thing. That advance is filled with opportunities for businesses, for employees, for the public at large. However, we always need to have the evolution of technology reflect our values as a society and as a community, which, in this instance, means there has to be a balance in the way in which digital platforms and other technological changes impact the daily lives of working people.

We cannot settle for a future in which the money in our industry flows increasingly towards the haves – the rich, the famous – but in which the middle-class working performer and other middle-class talent is hollowed out. It can’t be that a show on a subscription platform says: “To make sure the audience gets to the show, we’ll give the famous person who becomes the draw 90% of the money, and everybody else gets scale. We can’t have a business model that’s increasing the inequality between the haves and the have nots.”

DEADLINE: How are the return-to-work protocols working out? How safe are film sets today?

CARTERIS: I just finished shooting a film in Washington last month and it was incredible for me. I couldn’t believe the experience. It was exciting to be back on a set, and although I couldn’t hug people and we had to keep our distance, we were able to socialize and it was fun. And I think part of that came from feeling protected, so I felt free. And I loved that. I really missed being able to work and do what l love doing. Is this the way I want to work all the time? No, I wish I didn’t have to wear a mask and I wish we didn’t have to create scenarios so that people wouldn’t get sick, but I’m happy that we were able to do that, and ideally, not only get people back to work, but keep them working. So it’s been very positive.

Members have told me that they are relieved to have the protocols; that they wanted something put in place because they were afraid. They felt vulnerable as performers because we go without any kind of PPE when we’re on set, unless we’re playing doctors, right? I’ve had many people call me from around the country and writing me letters saying how they felt safer on set sometimes than when they were in the grocery store or out on the street.

WHITE: The return-to-work safety protocols have worked out very effectively. We’re all very pleased with the results, which have yielded, across the country, a lower transmission rate than in the general public, and have kept our members overwhelmingly safe. We are also pleased with the ability of this industry to voluntarily and quickly come to the table with a shared goal of keeping the industry working as much as possible, safely, which we successfully did. I know that I speak for many in this town when I share a note of real pride in the way that we have showcased successful labor relations and industry relations through our response to Covid-19.

DEADLINE: The safety protocols, which expire on April 30, were reached with the companies last year before any Covid-19 vaccines had been developed. Now that vaccinations are becoming more available, would you like to see them required at some point for cast and crew members?

CARTERIS: We’re re-evaluating the protocols in April. That was the agreement when we negotiated them. So I’m sure there will be many conversations about what’s going to be happening. We’re following the CDC and the science on this. That will be a determination made by all the unions that are working together and the studios.

Personally, I hope that people, if they are eligible and healthy enough, would take the vaccine if they are able to. That’s the one thing we’re hearing from science, which is that if we can get enough people to do it, that we could actually create a herd immunity. And I have a concern that another wave is coming; they’re talking about a surge – I think it will be the fourth surge. So I have a major concern there.

WHITE: I think there will be a strong push for mandatory vaccinations. Of course, this is an area where some people feel very strongly against such a requirement, whether for religious reasons, health reasons, or other reasons of personal value. Our goal is always to take those steps necessary to keep everyone safe on set, and I think most people believe this will yield mandatory vaccinations. But right now, we’re beginning that discussion, so no decisions have been made yet.

DEADLINE: Do you have any sense of how much income actors have lost over the last year because of the pandemic as a percentage of prior years’ earnings?

WHITE: Does “a whole lot” answer that question? It will take a while for us to be able to have specific numbers on the damage and loss of 2020, but I can tell you that the loss by individual members, families, small businesses and companies have been tremendous.

DEADLINE: Gabrielle, what’s the best and worst thing about being president during these difficult times?

CARTERIS: The best thing is to see how determined and committed the members are to each other, and to see this country come together in such a challenging time. Millions of dollars were donated by our members to help take care of our members in crisis. The SAG-AFTRA Foundation has provided more than $6.5 million in financial support for our members in this last year. So that gives me hope. The challenge is having seen our members really struggle during a time that none of us in our lifetimes could have ever imagined. The most painful thing has been the loss that so many of us have gone through, whether it’s losing the people we love, seeing people we love who are sick, seeing the pain that’s going on in the world, people losing their jobs.

This has been a very trying time, and it’s been really sad for me, seeing that pain. But on the other side, I am really hopeful. Seeing our members helping each other, and reaching out across the country; a member going to an older member’s house just to see if they need food or to drop something off; or if somebody needs a place to stay because they can’t make ends meet; people opening their homes. I mean, there has been incredible outreach from our members to each other, and that, to me, has been really special. So I say congratulations to them for all their hard work.

DEADLINE: It’s been a year now since SAG-AFTRA closed its headquarters to members and non-essential workers. Do you see the office opening back up anytime soon?

WHITE: I think the office will open up in 2021, assuming the vaccination rollout continues successfully. We are building our reopening plan for employees, right now, based on best practices around the country and the monitoring of health statistics, but you know as well as I do that the virus transmission rates vary from state to state and city to city. So this is not yet a predictable environment in which to make final decisions. We’re looking at it and monitoring it with an eye towards reopening and getting back to business as quickly as we safely can, and I’m very hopeful that with free movement things can open up in this calendar year.

CARTERIS: It’s important to note that staff have been working from home throughout the pandemic – often more hours than pre-pandemic because the members’ needs are so great. Many are working more so than at any other time. And our staff has continued to process residuals payments in the office. Getting members their money is always important; even more so during the pandemic.

DEADLINE: Starting a year ago, there were furloughs, and then layoffs, of SAG-AFTRA staff. Where does that stand now?

WHITE: A lot of people were confused about the difference between a furlough and a layoff: a layoff is permanent; there’s no plan of bringing employees back. A furlough is when an employee is not working now, but there’s a plan to bring the person back as soon as we can. What we did was furlough employees until we could no longer justify it financially, and then they were laid off. All of this was very public. We went through waves of this process, with the final one occurring towards the end of the year.

DEADLINE: What percentage have been laid off?

WHITE: About 30%. We are now in the slow and steady process of replenishing our ranks.

DEADLINE: Tuesday marks the nine-year anniversary of the merger of SAG and AFTRA. Why was merger necessary, and what would the landscape look like today if the two unions hadn’t merged?

CARTERIS: (laughs) Oh my God. I’ve absolutely, without a doubt, really been reflecting on this. With the incredible changes that have been taking place in our industry, and how in the next couple of years it’s really going to be growing and changing in ways we never imagined. Merger actually increased our bargaining strength, which is so important. If we had not merged, there would be two performers’ unions vying for similar contracts for so much of the same work, and that would just be giving more ammunition for our employers to pit us against one another, which would only weaken our negotiating ability.

I absolutely believe that merger was essential. If we had not merged, I don’t know that we could have made it through the pandemic. It was really important for us to have one strong voice to move forward so that we could help continue making sure our members work and to help them find a way to make a living. And we could not be distracted by having two unions fighting against each other.

WHITE: Let’s remember the situation pre-merger: two unions representing the same group of performers who were increasingly willing to undermine one another to gain jurisdiction in television. For anyone who understands labor relations, that is a disastrous situation. It effectively allows studios to play each union off of each other and to dismantle protections embedded in the agreement in exchange for putting a show under the agreement. Merger was essential to stop that process, and I firmly believe that one or both of the unions would have been decimated if that fighting continued.

Merger has been very successful on just about every metric. We have more and more people joining this union. We have far more strength at the bargaining table than we otherwise would’ve had, and we do more as a combined union than either union could have done previously as single entities including in the area of organizing, legislatively, bargaining, member activities, webinars, seminars, educational opportunities. This list goes on and on. All of this, obviously, was interrupted by the pandemic, but as a result of being a combined union, we are now poised to get back to business full-time as soon as the health environment allows us to do so.

We’ve been on two strikes since we’ve merged: video games and BBH (the Bartle Bogle Hegarty ad agency), and BBH was really a watershed moment for the entire commercials area, which is a big chunk of our members’ earnings. Can you imagine, during those strikes, if they could’ve just walked over to another union?

DEADLINE: The SAG and AFTRA health plans merged on January 1, 2017. Do you still have hopes that the pension plans can merge, as well? I know it’s much more complicated.

WHITE: Yes, but you are right. It’s much more complicated; the federal rules and regulations regarding pension plans make that a far more complicated exercise. Every step taken is done with legal compliance and the members’ interests in mind.

DEADLINE: Is the industry becoming more diverse and inclusive, and what more needs to be done?

CARTERIS: I absolutely believe that it’s becoming more inclusive and diverse. This is an ongoing quest. You know, when I first came into office almost five and a half years ago, one of the things I wanted to accomplish, aside from strong contracts and to be able to be with the members and to hear about their concerns and interests, was equity and inclusion. And looking back, it’s been an incredible time for our union, and for the industry and our members, who have taken major steps to help guide, and redirect, the union and the industry.

Right now we’re dealing with the lack of diversity within the stunt community. I brought together people who are underrepresented in the stunt community – people of color, LGBTQ – and formed a task force to talk about the real challenges they’re facing, and the real discriminatory things that stop them from feeling safe or prevent them from having the opportunity to work. And we’re talking on many different levels, because we need to change the dynamic; we have to change and expand the opportunities for all of our members, who represent the American scene and our society. We’re working on that, and talking to studios and with different unions regarding people of color, and hair and makeup and the challenges they deal with. We’re dealing with it every day, day in and day out.

And we’re seeing some major shifts take place. And it’s important to say this – I believe that so many of the incredible shifts and changes that are occurring are due to our members really participating and being part of the conversation and being part of the solution; not looking to attack, but to build. I’ve been so impressed by our members and our staff, which we are blessed to have. They’ve done really good work. Do we have to do more? Yes, and this is going to be ongoing. The diversity and inclusion that has to take place, and the recognition that we can do better is something that I want us to be able to continue.

WHITE: We are engaged in a broad range of DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) issues, including issues related to industry employment, issues related to the hiring and work opportunities for our stunt performers, issues related to hair and makeup for our diverse membership on film and television sets, and issues related to diversity within newsrooms.

DEADLINE: Beyond the employment of your members, why is it important that the viewers see diversity in film and television when they go to the movies or watch television?

WHITE: We know that this industry has a big impact on society at large through the stories that we tell, the characters we embody, the news that we decide to cover, and in a host of other ways. It’s critical to SAG-AFTRA members that we take these portrayals and these decisions seriously and that we make every effort to have our stories embody the full American scene, which this industry has traditionally failed to do.

DEADLINE: But it seems that across the board with writers, directors and actors, that there’s been significant improvement…

WHITE: That’s right, and recently, we are seeing substantial change and dynamic efforts being made in the executive suites and in writers’ rooms and decisions made in casting, in directing, and in all those areas that are promising, and if continued, can lead to real sustainable change, and we at SAG-AFTRA want to make sure that we are doing our part to see that reality come to life.

DEADLINE: What are you hearing from members about sexual harassment in the workplace?

CARTERIS: Somebody called me who’d had an issue on a set about a year ago. She’s back on that set, and she said, “It’s so different now. They don’t do the scenes they were doing. With the intimacy coordinators they’re bringing on, I feel safer and more creative.” So the feedback has been very, very positive. And it’s been really important. We’ve been having conversations, developing and releasing guidelines, negotiating contractual language, codifying protocols and educating members – and for the first time, people are really recognizing the improvements and talking about it when it’s happening.

The feedback from men has been very positive as well, because they’re feeling more comfortable on sets. Even if they are not taking part in the hyper-exposed work, they feel more comfortable because they’re not feeling the anxiety that was coming from some of the people who were being asked to do things that were so suggestive.

WHITE: We have also continued to work diligently with leaders and members of the intimacy coordinator community and with the Hollywood Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality.

DEADLINE: David, you mentioned organizing. Is there any thought being given to organizing some of the news networks that are not signed to the contract, like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC?

WHITE: Yes, always. But just realize that even during the pandemic we have been organizing podcasts, audiobooks, content creators, and influencers. We’re organizing in all these spaces, which are growth areas. For CNN, Fox and the others, most of the reporters that work for them are already members of our union, either because of their work in other contracts or because they joined the union before they got to one of those shops. So yes, those national newsrooms and other non-union shops are big targets that we always have our eye on.

CARTERIS: We are always open to organizing and over this past year have seen people recognizing the need for unions and the strong desire to unionize. We are also working to ensure that everybody has a voice; that everybody has the right to collective bargaining and protections. And if people want to have that representation, we are here to help guide them so that they can obtain it.

DEADLINE: Gabrielle, what is David White really like?

CARTERIS: (laughs) David is a very generous man, very thoughtful and very bright. He’s a conceptualizer; he sees the big picture. David is not only aware of where we’ve been, and where we are, but he sees where we can go. He’s a great partner to work with. He doesn’t separate himself from the membership; he really embraces the membership and gets into the conversation. It’s been an amazing experience; and amazing partnership. It’s an honor to work with him. Our members are lucky to have an executive director like David White.

DEADLINE: Will you be running again for president?

CARTERIS: I can’t put my head into any election right now. Our members aren’t concerned about an election and I certainly am not. Let’s get through this pandemic and get everyone back to work and staying safe.

DEADLINE: Next Sunday is the 27th annual Screen Actors Guild Awards. How much more challenging is it to put on a virtual award show?

WHITE: It’s a great deal more challenging to put on an award show that is intended for the community to come together to celebrate one another’s performances over the course of the prior year and to do that when the community is unable to gather in a single place. But we have a creative production team and expect to put on a very fun, joyful show that allows our community to celebrate their peers and the rest of the world to witness, as an audience, and celebrate along with us.

DEADLINE: Last question: Why is it still called the SAG Awards?

WHITE: Because there have been over 25 years of investment in the brand, in the public brand, the SAG Awards, and changing that brand isn’t always the wisest thing to do. There is no question that the SAG Awards is attached to the union of SAG-AFTRA and celebrates the acting performances of our membership.

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