Shortly after being named national president of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in April, Roberta Reardon quoted Charles Darwin in an address to members: "It is not the strongest of the species that survive, not the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change." That Reardon would strike a note of adaptation rather than confrontation is telling, given that AFTRA has eight major contracts to negotiate with management in the next 18 months.
By contrast, its longtime negotiating partner, the Screen Actors Guild, has appeared to take a much harder line, strategizing with the Writers Guild of America as it prepares for talks on a new contract with television and movie producers. Further, those strategy sessions have not included AFTRA, one of several sore points that have arisen between the two performers' unions in past years.
Their potential divide will be demonstrated, at least geographically, in three weeks: While SAG huddles with the writers, who begin their talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers July 16 in Los Angeles, AFTRA will open its 70th-anniversary convention July 19 in Philadelphia, 2,400 miles away.
All the entertainment unions stand at a crucial juncture, because the world of new media—such as the Web, cell phones, and MP3 players—is as filled with ambiguity as it is with potential. Though the outcome of the talks between the WGA and the AMPTP will be a major bellwether, the impact of AFTRA's negotiations—which range from sound recordings to video games—could be more wide-ranging. Because it deals with so many media, Reardon said in her April address, AFTRA as an arts and media union is "the paradigm for the 21st century." However, it remains to be seen whether its more adaptable negotiating philosophy is one other unions will follow.
To understand where AFTRA is, one has to understand the commercials strike of 2000 and how its results are interpreted within various factions of the performers' unions. Though the strike, which ran from early May to late October, was a joint SAG-AFTRA venture, its punishments and rewards were distributed unevenly, according to industry officials interviewed for this article. In general, voiceover actors in New York—a significant part of AFTRA's political base—may have suffered more short-term damage because of missed work, while on-camera actors—the heart of SAG—may have reaped more long-term benefits. The most visible gains went to actors in cable TV commercials: Their 13-week residual payments went from a little over $1,000 to almost $2,500 by 2003.
"Horrifically unsuccessful" is how Holter Graham—an actor, voiceover artist, and the newly elected president of the New York branch of AFTRA—described the strike. "People look back at that and think, You just can't get that pissed off and strike."
"Strikes are the ultimate weapon," said Reardon, who stressed that the 2000 strike was good for galvanizing the unions and developing new leaders. "It may come to that if it has to come to that. But it ultimately doesn't do anyone a lot of good." During the strike, she said, some commercial producers got used to paying lower rates for nonunion talent. Combine that with lingering bitterness, and they weren't eager to work with union members for a while.
However, a longtime SAG member who played an active role in the strike and who requested anonymity here said it was good for performers: Between 2001 and 2005, they earned $202 million more than they would have if they had taken the advertisers' last best offer before the strike. (According to an April 2000 report in Variety, that offer included the elimination of pay-per-use residuals on the broadcast networks in favor of quarterly payments and a 60 percent increase in cable TV residuals. For their part, performers were pushing to bring the pay-per-use system to cable.)
"That's hooey," Graham countered. "The deal we got may have been more than the last deal that was on the table. But the money we lost and the enormous dent caused in the business the following years? No. We didn't come out any better than if we had just gone into that room and figured it out."
The fallout from the strike is only one point of contention. Others are the failed merger attempts between the two unions and AFTRA's recent move to