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CENTURY STANDOUTS: Performers United - A Century Sees Emergence of Equity, SAG, and AFTRA

For actors, Christmas 1912 and the future looked bleak as a broken stick on Broadway's frigid pavement. On Dec. 22 of that year, The Actors' Society of America had dissolved, having despaired at trying to challenge New York's tightfisted theatre owners.

The Actors' Society had formed in May 1896 as "a social and business organization," but showed a powder-puff punch and a glass jaw. By winter 1912, it dropped to its knees when a court of appeals upheld the "satisfaction clause," which allowed a producer to fire an actor if the thespian's work was deemed no longer satisfactory-a real hardship in those days when performers rehearsed for weeks without salaries. Actor Jack Hazzard had sued the Shuberts-but lost.

And all may have been lost. But this was New York City in 1912, a growling, growing urban center which had seen its first strike by printers as far back as 1794. By the beginning of the 20th century, a true labor movement in the Northeast was forcing strikes, and even government intervention. In 1902, 100,000 anthracite coal miners had struck in Pennsylvania, while an American Federation of Labor (AFL) hatters union had organized a national boycott against a non-union Connecticut company.

But nowhere was the bloody taste of labor battle more acute than in New York. In 1909, the Ladies Garment Workers initiated "The Uprising of the Twenty Thousand," against shirtwaist and dress manufacturers. It received widespread public support, including that of some factory owners' wives. A year later, 50,000 cloakmakers struck.

In 1911, the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire on the Lower East Side claimed 150 lives, almost all of them young women who either burned or jumped from upper stories to their deaths.

Perhaps it was a sense of that dramatic recent history (and nobody has a better memory than an actor) which, despite the desperate dissolution of their own professional society, caused a handful of performers to hold on. Their goal: forming a true labor union for actors.

Earning Equity

According to Tom McMorrow, writing in the August-September 1988 issue of Equity News, that small group included Howard Kyle, the doomed Actors' Society's chairman, and Frank Gillmore, a longtime society officer who constantly preached the need of better working conditions. They had led several efforts to meld the society with the AFL, but had never succeeded.

There was Charles Coburn, a prominent professional whose portrait now hangs next to his actress wife's-both portraying Shakespearean characters-on the wall of a third-floor room at the main New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue. Joining Kyle, Gillmore, and Coburn were Albert Bruning, William Harcourt, Grant Stewart, and Milton Sills.

The group called itself a planning committee, holding clandestine meetings through the spring of 1913 at The Players' Club. Two stars, De Wolf Hopper and Wilton Lackaye, soon both decided to join the group.

On May 26, 1913, at 57th Street's Pabst Grand Circle Hotel, this courageous band formed Actors' Equity Association. They drafted a constitution and elected their first president, Francis Wilson.

A major stroke for Equity's positive profile came not long after. No actor at the time possessed the aura of George Arliss, who by summer 1913 was completing 280 performances in "Disraeli." An old friend of Gillmore and Francis, Arliss was so successful and in demand, he exercised clout over producers. But when Gillmore invited him into the new Equity organization, Arliss agreed, even serving as an original councilor.

By July 1919, united actors' strength had grown, and the AFL "granted a charter to the Associated Actors and Artistes of America, with Equity as the largest component," according to Equity's website (

Six years earlier, producers had lounged at Christmas, believing they had killed any chance of actors organizing. They even reveled in some successful performers, like George M. Cohan, who gave their disregards to unions on Broadway. But by August 1919, producers who had organized as the Producing Managers Association felt the power that results from labor's uniting. The American theatre experienced its first strike, as 100 Equity members walked away five minutes before Broadway's opening curtains.

The 30-day strike reverberated through eight cities, as 37 plays closed and 16 more couldn't open. Producers saw millions of dollars evaporate.

During the strike, performer Marie Dressler helped organize the chorus, who had joined the walkout, into Chorus Equity. According to Equity's web, those two groups merged in 1955.

That first strike in the summer of '19 resulted in a five-year contract, including nearly all of Equity's demands. The American legit performer, for the first time in the country's 143-year history, truly did not work alone.

"The Only Thing We Have to Fear..."

By 1933, Equity was a young adult, struggling like most Americans to survive the Great Depression. Legit actors had stuck together, and the union was sturdy.

But such wasn't the case on the movie set. The month of March is named for Mars, the Roman god of war. Franklin Delano Roosevelt started his first term on March 4, preparing to lead a suffering country through economic turmoil and a future long war. But that same month, another confrontation was about to begin on the nation's West Coast-in Hollywood.

On March 7, filmdom's Producer's Association announced it would slash studio employees' salaries by 50%. That included actors, who reportedly filled the camera lens six days a week for $65. At the time, actors and other studio employees' only support came from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, which proposed that the salary cuts be scaled.

That wasn't good enough for actor Ken Thomson, who invited five peers to his home to discuss alternatives. They decided on a self-governing actors' organization, and started looking into the legalities.

By June 30, they had filed articles of incorporation for the Screen Actors Guild. The original union saw 18 actors join, electing Ralph Morgan the guild's first president.

Earlier that month, Congress had approved and Roosevelt had signed his National Industrial Recovery Act, birthing the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The agency proposed a Motion Picture Code of Fair Competition. Actors read it as pro-management. According to SAG's website, a "mass exodus of stars" left the academy that October, joining SAG.

Morgan then yielded the SAG presidency to Eddie Cantor, a famous performer and also friend of Roosevelt. Cantor visited the President in Washington, after which Roosevelt suspended a number of the Motion Picture Code's provisions.

By September '33, the guild's founding board of directors were gathering at the popular Masquers Club. They included Morgan, Alan Mowbray, Lucille Gleason, Boris Karloff, Noel Madison, Kenneth Thomson, James Gleason, Ivan Simpson, Richard Tucker, Clay Clement, Claude King, Alden Gay Thomson, Bradley Page, Morgan Wallace, and Arthur Vinton.

Actors' Equity actually had its own film jurisdiction. But by 1934, and having seen a year of SAG's growing success, Equity surrendered that jurisdiction to the guild.

The following year, SAG received its charter, and became national through joining the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4As). Soon membership exceeded 5,000, and the guild began monthly membership balloting of actors' outstanding work: the first Guild Awards. Robert Montgomery followed Cantor as SAG president.

Flexing its muscle in 1936, the guild boycotted the Oscars, and denounced the producer-run academy for "selling the actor down the river" by attempting to bargain for talent.

By 1937, actors-who had been at producers' mercy only four years earlier-had won a guild shop. In May, thousands of actors, from stars to extras, voted almost unanimously (96%) to strike. Producers broke to the pressure, with 13 signing the first SAG contract: $25 daily minimum for actors, $35 for stunts, and $5.50 for extras.

The "AFRAmath"

With performers' unions on both coasts now bringing power to actors' ranks, century-wise it took only about a 60-second commercial for radio actors to organize.

Three months after SAG won its first contract, the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA) formed on Aug. 16, 1937, with its first members including Edgar Bergen (sans Charlie and Mortimer), opera star Lawrence Tibbet, and violinist Jascha Heifetz. The union's first board of directors also included Jack Benny and Bing Crosby. A familiar SAG face, Eddie Cantor, was also a popular radio voice. He became AFRA's first president.

Earlier, 21 Los Angeles radio performers had attempted to organize. Stations threatened to blacklist them, and the audio thesp union effort stalled. But by that steaming Southern California August of "37, the radio organizing effort succeeded with the joint backing of Equity, SAG, and other members of the 4As. Equity, which had jurisdiction over radio performers, relinquished it to AFRA. By December, the airwave union had signed between 70% and 90% of all radio artists except musicians, who were members of the thriving American Guild of Musical Artists.

The next year, AFRA negotiated its first radio contract, according to AFTRA Magazine's summer 1987 issue. After four days and nights of tough dealing-and stunned broadcasters hearing that the likes of Jack Benny and Fred Allen were ready to strike-NBC and CBS signed radio's first national-scale collective bargaining agreement on June 12, 1938.

Valiant Warriors, Many Shores

The 1940s proved perhaps the most volatile decade for performers. It witnessed actors serving bravely abroad in World War II. At home, courage continued as performers responded to ever-changing and challenging conditions on stage, screen, and radio. Many extras left SAG to form the Screen Players Union. Harpo Marx and Dick Powell helped create the SAG TV Committee. Equity proposed a merger of all performers' unions.

AFRA signed the Transcription Code, covering programs recorded for later broadcast, and saw cost-of-living adjustments added to contracts. In 1944, it won the legal right to take political action.

In 1945, SAG member Olivia de Havilland proved victorious in her landmark lawsuit against the Warners, freeing her from an unwanted extensive contract and the inability to choose roles. By 1946, SAG had been certified by the National Labor Relations Board.

In 1947, Equity challenged the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., for barring blacks from audiences. The union resolved that no members would play there. The theatre ended up closing, then reopening five years later with new management and a nondiscrimination policy.

Still, the '40s found performers beleaguered and split by the Red Scare and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) hearings. The Hollywood Ten were indicted for alleged pro-Communist activity, refused to cooperate with the HUAC, and were fired by studio heads.

The decade's end saw the U.S. Supreme Court gavel the granite-block studio system into pebbles, as it ordered divestiture.

Small Screen, Big Future

By 1950, the major networks had graduated television from a sports venue to a glowing stage making stars of performers like Milton Berle, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Jackie Gleason; and even a journalist named Ed Sullivan was developing a "reeeeallly big shew!"

On April 16, the 4As settled SAG and AFRA's lengthy TV-jurisdiction dispute by generating a new union to represent television actors: the Television Authority. By the end of the year, the TVA had negotiated its first contract. Within two years of that, TVA and AFRA merged to create AFTRA, on Sept. 17, 1952, with George Heller becoming its national executive secretary.

That same year, SAG would strike TV commercial producers in December. By February '53, the guild had signed a contract with the Association of TV Producers, providing for first residuals for TV show reruns.

In '54, AFTRA surprised skeptics by becoming the industry's first union to win an employer-funded health and pension plan.

But in the '50s the unions caved in to the HUAC. AFTRA members approved a national referendum providing for any member to be "fined, censured or expelled" for not cooperating with Congress' investigation into Communists within the entertainment industry. And SAG members voted to require an anti-Communist "loyalty oath" of all actors joining the guild.

The latter '50s would also represent a struggle between SAG and AFTRA, with SAG rejecting an AFTRA merger bid, and the NLRB arbitrating a dispute between them over taped commercials.

"...God's Work Will Truly Be Our Own"

In June 1960, Equity went out on strike for 13 days, closing all Broadway theatres. The result: the Equity-League pension and health trust funds were formed.

SAG opened the '60s with a strike for movie residuals for films sold to TV. After shutting down theatres for just over a month, the guild got what it wanted. And producers created the guild's pension and welfare plans with a lump payment of $2.65 million. The SAG-AFTRA Credit Union, a bank run by actors for actors, opened. And SAG won a new contract including non-discrimination language, improved residuals, and more prominent screen credits.

Actors joined Martin Luther King in his march to Washington, D.C. And they suffered through his murder, and the killings of President John F. Kennedy and his brother Robert.

In '64, Equity achieved the equalization of the rehearsal and the minimum performance salaries. A "principal interview" requirement was established, requiring producers to see Equity performers, giving a greater number of actors the chance to be cast in a show.

By the late '60s, independent filmmaking was burgeoning, and SAG created the low-budget contract.

By the '70s, more than 230 million TV sets glared in homes worldwide. Most were in the U.S., and the growth in viewership led to a more-and-more active AFTRA.

Through that decade, AFTRA was smokin' off-camera as it protested government agencies' non-union AV programs, intensified efforts to organize recording companies, fought for performance royalty legislation, and won additional payments based on record sales for non-royalty singers. The union also sued the networks for overseas residuals.

By the mid-'70s, SAG had won residuals in perpetuity in its TV-film pact, and the guild had elected its first woman president, Kathleen Nolan. In 1978, SAG and AFTRA performed a joint strike against ad agencies over their commercials contract.

The Golden Decade

The '80s would find both SAG and AFTRA celebrating their golden anniversaries. But, before that, union leaders' laughter would contort into gallows smiles as the real gold vanished. In 1982, a jury would rule against both AFTRA and SAG in a $12 million, treble-damage anti-trust suit filed by Tuesday Productions, a jingle production house in San Diego. AFTRA filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. By '83, SAG's 50th year, the two unions had settled with Tuesday, and AFTRA began rebuilding.

SAG would also see one of its former presidents become the President. In 1980, Ronald Reagan took the oath as the nation's 40th chief executive.

Also, that decade, Equity recognized the need for, and implemented, low-budget agreements to accommodate the growing number of smaller production companies producing nationwide.

In the mid-'80s, SAG's board formed a plan for contributing to research on and education about AIDS. In 1988, Equity led other groups in forming Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.

By 1987, SAG members had earned a record $1 billion in residuals. In 1989, the guild agreed to the first-ever made-for-basic-cable contract.

"We Are the World..."

With the coming of the '90s, the performers' unions would meet the challenges of melding media and a world growing smaller. Advances in satellite broadcasting and the Internet's proliferation meant union leaders must think and act globally.

The decade opened with SAG member Meryl Streep keynoting the National Women's Conference, expressing concern over women's declining work opportunities, pay parity, and role models. That same year, screen extras returned to the guild fold with the 88% vote approval of SAG members.

AFTRA commissioned an in-depth self-study to determine how to cope with the rapidly changing industry. And spurred by casting protests from Equity regarding Broadway's "Miss Saigon," SAG's board adopted a resolution that performers of color receive preferential treatment for casting in ethnic roles.

By the mid-'90s, AFTRA's sound recordings contract had grown to over $100 million in earnings, and the union began to restructure and add resources. It earmarked $1.25 million to organize cable, and allocated $2 million for a state-of-the-art computer network. AFTRA's earnings exceeded $1 billion for the first time.

Also by the mid-'90s, Hollywood extras had rejoined SAG, and the background performers earned over $1 million in the first month of a new theatrical contract. As SAG leaders signed the first interactive contract, they also heard their calculators click up $2 billion in film-TV residuals, another $2 billion for commercial resids, and SAG pensions topped $1 billion. And stunt performers joined SAG.

As the century draws to a close, SAG and AFTRA have both taken active roles in negotiation of the World Intellectual Property Organization's treaty to protect copyrights, including those of performers' recorded voices and images. SAG is pushing for film- and TV-production tax incentives in the U.S. to quell "runaway production" to Canada.

The two screen unions closed a consistent 10-year effort to merge by seeing AFTRA members approve, but SAG members turn it down.

But as a century marked largely by performers' vision and fortitude comes to an end, the unions move into 2000 prepared to take care of their own:

Equity will begin negotiations with the League of American Theatres and Producers on the vital Production Contract. Its coverage primarily includes Broadway shows, national and international tours, bus & truck tours and bus & truck split week tours. SAG and AFTRA have been meeting for months, preparing for their joint negotiation of the commercials contract.

It is, after all, the union continuum, moving forward with echoes of Tennyson's "Ulysses": "...strong in will/To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield."

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