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AFTRA Tackles Finances

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The 60th Convention of the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists in Los Angeles concluded with the passing of two amendments to the union's constitution, which members hope will solve its $3 million deficit and significant drop in membership. AFTRA delegates voted Thursday to streamline its board, cutting the number of board members from 116 to 73. The constitution, originally written in 1937, will also no longer mandate that union headquarters be located in Manhattan.

This sets the stage for the headquarters' move to Los Angeles, a longtime goal of the organization. The proposed move west is not only a strategy to get closer to studio production and attract new members but also an attempt to stanch money hemorrhaging from AFTRA's budget. National President John P. Connolly, re-elected to a third two-year term during the conference, told Back Stage West the move is motivated mainly by economics. "Our constitution says that [AFTRA headquarters] must be in the borough of Manhattan--the most expensive real estate in the country," he said. "That's money that could be better spent hiring organizers. We're trying to give ourselves an open field to make the most rational decisions about where to allocate our resources."

Connolly added it was uncertain whether AFTRA's entire operation would move to L.A. "It may involve a wholesale or simply a partial transfer of part of our headquarters' function in Los Angeles. It's not a foregone conclusion; we're just studying it," he said.

AFTRA representatives report that the sharp drop in membership since the 2003 convention in Nashville has contributed to its inflated deficit. The union speculated many members left because of a 3 percent dues increase enacted after the 2003 convention. That year, the union also approved a special assessment of $50 per year for general membership and a raise in initiation fees to $1,300. The 80,000 AFTRA members currently pay $63.90 in annual dues, as well as 0.743 percent on earnings up to $100,000 and 0.137 percent on earnings up to $250,000.

The 2005 convention, which was held at the Renaissance Hotel in Hollywood, ended in the early morning hours on Sunday after three days of speeches, debates, voting, meetings, an awards ceremony, and cocktail parties.

Newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa opened the conference with a speech in which he pledged his support for stopping runaway production. He also mentioned his success in settling recent strikes by L.A.'s transportation and hotel workers in reference to AFTRA's stalled negotiations with Spanish-language network Telemundo.

"Spanish-language television is a new and burgeoning industry," he said. "I think it's important that we have parity of wages and working conditions. The best way to get that, the last time I looked, is to have a union." His comments, and many others supporting unionizing in general, were received with applause and standing ovations.

Keynote speaker FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps addressed the conference Friday morning, emphasizing the need to prevent media consolidation and vertical integration between a handful of powerful media companies. He called the FCC's June 2003 ruling to relax restrictions on media ownership a "spectacular failure" and agreed with the federal appeals court in Philadelphia, which rejected the new regulations, and the Supreme Court, which refused to hear an appeal by the media companies involved in the Philadelphia decision. Copps promised to unveil a new process the FCC will use to interact with Congress and the public "in a month or two." He called upon AFTRA to help the FCC understand the effects of media consolidation on the entertainment industry.

When asked in a private interview how the FCC's stronger policy against moral indecency in the media may affect actors, he said "Our job is not to go after performers. But we deal with broadcast licensing. It's their responsibility to deal with their performers in a mutually satisfactory fashion."

Actor and AFTRA delegate Morgan Fairchild, who is also active on several SAG boards, spoke on media consolidation from an actor's perspective before Thursday's voting session. "Everything seems to come down to the same five or six companies now," she told Back Stage West. "It's a very different economic culture that we're in. There seem to be lists of people that they will hire, and if you're not on that list--whether you're a writer, producer, or actor--you don't get hired. It marginalizes a lot of people, especially older people, people trying to get started, and middle-class actors trying to make a living."

Fairchild encouraged actors to participate more in the unions and emphasized the need for unity among AFTRA, Screen Actors Guild, and Actors' Equity Association. She also commented on another point Copps made regarding the need to stay on top of emerging media that could employ actors. "As soon as you start to deal with one technology, there's another one emerging," she said. "There are all of these different ways that we as performers can be used to a good advantage but also possibly not paid for that work." AFTRA recently accepted a controversial contract with Electronic Arts, Activision, and other videogame companies, which calls for a 36 percent wage increase. SAG, however, rejected the contract on the grounds that it does not allow residual payments for voiceover and other performers. Whether SAG will endorse a strike remains to be seen.

Other convention speakers included California state senators Sheila Kuehl, who outlined her bill to redistribute state spending on health care, and Kevin Murray, who encouraged AFTRA members to "always be organizing." On Thursday morning Martin Ludlow, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, delivered a fiery speech on the benefits of unionizing.

After Thursday's voting concluded at 5 p.m. at the Renaissance, the delegates crossed Hollywood Boulevard to attend the presentation of the AFTRA Media and Entertainment Excellence Awards (the AMEEs) and American Scene Awards at the Hollywood Museum. Actors, recording artists, journalists, agents, and other industryites sipped cocktails amid displays dedicated to predecessors such as Marilyn Monroe and Bob Hope.

Soap operas and daytime television emerged as a theme throughout the evening. Veteran actors Susan Flannery of The Bold and the Beautiful and Don Hastings of As the World Turns accepted AMEE awards. William J. Bell, creator of The Young and the Restless and The Bold and the Beautiful, was posthumously honored with the American Scene Crystal Award for his groundbreaking work in daytime television. Presenters included actors Patrika Darbo from Days of Our Lives and Jason George of the former NBC daytime drama Sunset Beach. Other AMEE recipients included singer Patti Austin, NBC News correspondent Robert Hager, and actor Amber Tamblyn of Joan of Arcadia, whose father, actor Russ Tamblyn, presented her award.

In addition to the reappointment of President Connolly, delegates appointed 10 other national officers. Bob Edwards and Roberta Reardon were re-elected as national 1st vp and national 2nd vp, respectively. Elected as vp were Ron Morgan (Los Angeles), Lainie Cooke (New York), Shelby Scott (Boston), Belva Davis (San Francisco), Dave Corey (Miami), Dick Kay (Chicago), and David Hartley-Margoin (Denver). Matt Kimbrough (Los Angeles) was elected recording secretary, and Mitchell McGuire (New York) was re-elected treasurer.

The next AFTRA Convention will take place in Philadelphia in 2007.

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