Dissatisfied with AFTRA's response to his union's concerns, Alan Gordon, the American Guild of Musical Artists' executive director, has blasted the larger union in a letter to its chief administrator, Greg Hessinger.
According to Gordon's communiqué reacting to his and Hessinger's meeting last month, the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists "had little real interest in addressing the concrete concerns of AGMA's members. Instead, most of your comments were directed towards preserving the essential aspects of a status quo…"
The dispute stems from the fact that AFTRA, which represents more than 80,000 TV and radio performers, broadcasters and announcers, has contracts with companies that televise the performances of AGMA members. Thus, when the NYC Opera performs onstage, its members are represented by an AGMA contract, but if the performance also is broadcast on PBS' "Live From Lincoln Center" or taped for distribution, the singers also are covered by AFTRA's contract. This arrangement has been in place for more than 50 years, but AGMA is now saying that it robs AGMA of the right to negotiate the terms and conditions of its members' employment while forcing AGMA members to pay dues to two unions.
Since spring, Gordon and Hessinger have been verbally sling shooting at each other in the press over the issue. Gordon slashed at Hessinger in his most recent letter, saying his members have complained about AFTRA's "extortionate initiation fees and dues they were coerced into paying…and demanded that I take action to rectify this unconscionable situation."
Gordon said AFTRA has negotiated contracts which pay "miniscule levels" to AGMA members, who were required to pay "grossly disproportionate" initiation fees and dues for services they basically don't need. In turn, he said, AFTRA "did not equally protect" AGMA members, nor address the smaller union's concern about expanding the audience base for opera and ballet.
Even more critical to Gordon, AFTRA's contracts "failed to provide levels of contributions sufficient to enable AGMA members to qualify for coverage under AFTRA's health and pension plans." As a result, Gordon said, AGMA members have lost all those contributions "and the benefits from their work inured to AFTRA's rank and file actor and actress members who were, in turn, unjustly enriched by the work of AGMA's members."
This process, over the years, has become "economically destructive to AGMA's members and AGMA as an institution," Gordon claimed. He added that his efforts to "correct this intolerable situation…provoked a litany of inappropriate, personal attacks from you."
Gordon's letter appears on AGMA's website. He introduces it by saying he met with Hessinger "at the request of the 4A's…" AFTRA and AGMA make up two of the seven Four As members. The others are Actors' Equity Association, the American Guild of Variety Artists, the Hebrew Actors Union, the Guild of Italian Actors, and the Screen Actors Guild.
Gordon's letter said he provided Hessinger a proposal designed to address AFTRA's "political and jurisdictional concerns" and AGMA's membership concerns for "securing their own health and pension coverage" while eliminating "excessive dues and fees" requirements "for services that they did not want, did not need and from which they received no benefit."
Following the meeting, Hessinger responded in writing, according to Gordon, with a "disingenuous proposal" which he also dubbed "provocative and lacking in sincerity." Gordon responded to Hessinger's proposal, which wasn't available to Back Stage, by citing three points:
1. AGMA members do not work in "AFTRA's jurisdiction" when their live productions are televised, broadcast on radio, or taped and then released on videocassette or digital videodisk. In those cases, Gordon said, AGMA members are still working under AGMA-bargained contracts. "They do not replace AFTRA actors, they do not fill roles that could be taken by AFTRA actors and they do not have any community of interest in common with AFTRA actors."
2. Hessinger's claim that AFTRA has jurisdiction over AGMA members' work in "new technology media (including the Internet) is spurious and wholly without justification. The obligation and the right to negotiate with regard to such compensation is clearly within AGMA's jurisdiction and it is not open for further discussion."
3. AGMA does not consider AFTRA's contracts "only with distribution entities (like Live from Lincoln Center, PBS, and NPR) as situations which involve questions of inter-union jurisdiction, nor do we think that those contracts are binding in any way upon our members." Calling those pacts "secondary agreements," Gordon said that any AFTRA attempts "to threaten, coerce, harass or intimidate" AGMA members regarding those contracts would result in AGMA's seeking "appropriate relief" with the National Labor Relations Board.
AFTRA has suggested that the jurisdiction matter be heard before the Four As. But Gordon's letter ex-pressed suspicion about any such hearing, saying both sides must be assured of "the full measure of due process and fundamental fairness.
Gordon also indicated that his members' right to be represented by the union of their choice divided AGMA and AFTRA, not only on legal issues, but also "questions of trade unionism."
Hessinger, who has been involved in SAG and AFTRA's ongoing contract talks with the major studios and TV networks on a new feature-film and TV pact, wasn't available for comment when Back Stage attempted to contact him Monday. But in March he did call the Four As the "proper forum" for jurisdictional disputes, adding AFTRA would seek "appropriate remedies for AGMA's brazen attack on our undisputed jurisdiction there."
During that March interview, Hessinger also criticized Gordon for "advancing his own personal agenda," adding that he had "worn out his welcome in other places before. And I suspect he's well on his way to doing so at AGMA." Gordon had previously served as Eastern executive director of the Directors Guild of America.