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Secret Agent Man

My Dinner With SAG

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My Dinner With SAG
Last night, I decided to kick off the new year by having dinner with an old friend I haven't seen in a while. He's been going through a tough time, and I figured some good food and conversation might help. So I asked him to meet me at my favorite Chinese restaurant, a small place on Beverly, where we could share a meal without the eyes of the industry watching us.

I arrived first and decided to take the initiative by ordering some steamed dumplings and two glasses of wine. SAG arrived a few minutes later. He fell into his chair and mumbled an apology for being late. His appearance surprised me. SAG used to be a vibrant, powerful force, but now he looked like an older, beaten-down version of himself.

"Are you okay, buddy?" I asked a bit warily.

SAG explained that he was still exhausted from the third Group for One Union meeting back in October. There were a million details to work out before the big vote, and he was feeling overwhelmed. I smiled. "It's not like you didn't see this coming."

The waiter returned and took our order. I chose the scallops in garlic sauce. My friend ordered a chicken dish and another glass of wine. Then he asked for my take on the merger.

"It's absolutely necessary," I said. "My clients are getting screwed left and right. They work under both unions, but since their employer contributions are split two ways, they end up not qualifying for benefits under either plan."

SAG nodded in agreement. He knew I was right. When the unions went their own way during the 2008 contract negotiations, the resulting stalemate cost members nearly $100 million in lost wages and benefits. Worse, SAG lost a substantial amount of television coverage to AFTRA, and that's what set off the whole divided earnings issue. One of my clients is dealing with this nightmare right now.

To qualify for Plan B health insurance from SAG, an actor has to earn at least $14,800. Last year, my client earned $16,000. So what's the problem? The problem is, those earnings were divided between two unions. He made $10,000 under SAG contracts and $6,000 under AFTRA contracts. As a result, he didn't qualify for health insurance under either plan. And now he's been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

The food arrived. My friend ignored it and ordered more wine. Then he started going on and on about how AFTRA had stabbed him in the back. I started to worry he might have a heart attack before we could finish our meal.

Luckily, my cell phone interrupted his rant. I apologized and glanced down at the text. It was from AFTRA. "How's it going? Is he telling lies about me?" I quickly wrote back, "Not now. We'll talk later."

The waiter returned with the third glass of wine. That seemed to calm SAG down. I told him the past was gone and he needed to focus on the future.

My friend nodded. He explained that there were six key areas that still needed to be addressed before they could move forward: governance and structure, finance and dues, collective bargaining, pension and health, operations and staff, and member education. I agreed that there were miles to go before he could sleep, but I reminded SAG that every journey begins with a single step. (Eating in Chinese restaurants makes me talk like that.)

Later, as the two of us walked to our cars, I asked if they had decided on a name for the new union. He told me that would be addressed when and if the merger vote went through.

"How about SAFTRA?" I asked.

My tired friend rolled his eyes and drove off into the night.

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