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AGMA/AFTRA Jurisdiction Battle

The American Guild of Musical Artists has declared war on its sister union, the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists. The opening shot was fired Mar. 27, when AGMA, which represents about 6,000 ballet dancers and opera singers, accused AFTRA of trying to exert representational jurisdiction over AGMA's members. 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, 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.

In a five-page statement released by AGMA, the union said: "AGMA members strongly object to this arrangement, which takes a big bite out of any earnings resulting from the broadcast of their work. Instead, they demand the right to be represented by AGMA in all negotiations involving their work product, including broadcasts of their performances." The statement, which accused AFTRA of taking AGMA members' dues without providing any benefits, said that "the dispute ultimately may need to be resolved before the National Labor Relations Board."

AFTRA fired back, accusing AGMA national executive director Alan Gordon of starting a jurisdictional war for personal gain. "This is exactly the kind of action that strengthens and emboldens employers and hurts performers," AFTRA national executive director Greg Hessinger said. "It's an act of desperation by Alan Gordon, who is a man solely concerned with advancing his own personal agenda at the expense of anyone who gets in the way, including performers. We have not heard a single complaint from any member on these matters but have always been willing to engage in an open and constructive dialogue regarding matters of concern for our members. Alan Gordon has chosen to take a decidedly different path, and his reasons for doing so are a mystery to me."

Gordon said he would not respond to Hessinger's "personal attacks" but accused AFTRA of "inappropriately taking our members' money for years." Now, Gordon said, "somebody is finally going to do something about it, and [Hessinger] is upset. I don't blame him for being upset. It's been a nice deal for AFTRA at the expense of our members. Our members don't want it to happen that way anymore, and they asked me to do something about it."

Hessinger, calling AGMA's statement "a brazen attack on AFTRA's undisputed jurisdiction," said that "we are not going to debate these matters in the press," adding that the proper forum for adjusting jurisdictional disputes is the Four A's. The Four A's—the Associated Actors and Artistes of America—is the parent organization through which all U.S. actors unions are affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

However, a fair hearing before the Four A's, according to AGMA, would require the recusal by not only AGMA and AFTRA, but SAG. They make up three of the seven Four A's members. The others are Actors' Equity Association, the American Guild of Variety Artists, the Hebrew Actors Union, and the Guild of Italian Actors.

In a written response to questions about AGMA's stance on a Four A's hearing, AGMA said, 'If AFTRA commenced a jurisdictional dispute proceeding before the Four A's—AGMA would defend against it, provided that strict due process guarantees were in place. In particular, this would mandate not only the recusal of AFTRA and AGMA, but also of SAG from the process, inasmuch as SAG has a vested interest in the outcome of any decision. Without such due process guarantees, any such proceeding would be a sham and AGMA would seek to enjoin it.'

The written statement didn't specify SAG's "vested interest," but Gordon indicated in a phone conversation that SAG would claim jurisdiction over any commercials made regarding opera or dance productions.

Four A's executive director John Sucke, in a recent letter to Gordon, tried to dissuade him from going down the path of jurisdictional war. "I remain quite concerned about the possible damage that AGMA might cause by disrupting the previously accepted balance of jurisdiction among all Four A's unions," Sucke wrote. "In my opinion, none of our performing unions would benefit from a jurisdictional struggle between our unions. Further, because the jurisdiction for live television has been firmly and exclusively established with AFTRA for at least 50 years, you face an uphill battle, to say the least, in trying to overturn it insofar as the AGMA members are involved."

Additional reporting by Roger Armbrust (Back Stage). David Robb writes for The Hollywood Reporter.

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