You’ve heard of the Screen Actors Guild for years but these days the combined SAG-AFTRA organization is the buzz word. For those who have been with SAG or AFTRA for a long time you probably know and understand the benefits. For those who are new members (like me) or who aspire to one day become members there’s a learning curve I want to help you overcome.
Part of this is because when I went to my first orientation meeting after becoming a SAG-AFTRA member I was overwhelmed by not only how much this organization offers but how little of its member services I was taking advantage of. So, this is the beginning of a series of articles that will take you on the road to understanding SAG-AFTRA, why it exists, what it offers and how you as a member or aspiring member can be sure to avail yourself of its educational, member and one-on-one services.
After my first orientation meeting and that feeling of being overwhelmed I realized that because of my journalist background I could not only help others but help myself to better understand SAG-AFTRA by meeting with the people behind the scenes and clearing away the dust. And so I reached out to find out who could help me achieve this goal.
Bernadine Goldberg, the manager of member outreach, got me started right at the top. That first meeting made me realize not only how transparent this organization is but how focused they are on understanding the needs and desires of their members.
I met with the top of the SAG-AFTRA New York Local pyramid. Mike Hodge, SAG-AFTRA’s National Vice President, New York and Jae Je Simmons, NY Local Executive Director, who both gave of their time to help pave the way for me … and you … to better understand the new SAG-AFTRA.
The New SAG-AFTRA
I say the new SAG-AFTRA because that’s where this story really needs to begin because after many years of trying to combine these organizations, both SAG and AFTRA finally merged on March 30, 2012. And since then there’s been a whole lot going on. It was a tough rode but a “fait accompli.”
“The energy that we put in and the momentum that we built to get us here together and to get us merged has made us realize that if we can do that, think of what else we can do,” commented Jae Je as we chatted in SAG-AFTRA’s new NYC home at 1900 Broadway.
“We now are thinking bring it on. We were apart for two years after the merger so now we are feeling like ‘wow’ we are finally here together and so ‘let’s rock and roll.’”
“Now with us being together in one location and on one floor I get to know everybody, both the staff and the members,” Mike added. “Finally as a merged organization we get to spend time together, have conversations, and work out things that need to be worked out for the members.”
Mike’s concluding remark, “for the members,” was what I pulled away from that first meeting. The layout of the venue offers a room where members can go, get on a kiosk, bring their laptop and have Wi-Fi access, relax and eat their lunch, pick up information on the video screen or simply socialize.
When you walk in Gina Brice is generally the first one to greet you from her seat at the front desk. By the time you leave she’ll be calling you by your first name and will have patiently answered all your questions.
Some of the things this venue offers won’t seem like much but when you compare it to what came before you’ll find that to Mike, Jae Je, the staff and members those little things mean a lot. From a coat room that can actually hang up everyone’s coats, to Wi-Fi that is stable, to a massive board room where there is enough space and seats for even the largest board meetings.
Throughout the building there are smaller rooms where classes take place or smaller meetings are held and lounge areas where anyone can go to take a respite. The staff area is open yet private and best of all the building is surrounded by glass which gives you an open feeling as well as a visual and emotional connection to the New York City surroundings.
“We spent a lot of time analyzing what we provide as services and information and how to do that in this space. So, it was important to us that the space be designed with the member services in mind,” explained Jae Je who used words like fluidity, openness, and natural light to describe their present “home.”
In fact, that is what they want. “It was important to the board and the staff that everyone should feel like this is their home and the New York SAG-AFTRA member’s home,” she added.
What They Do and What You Should Do
Both Mike and Jae Je put top marks on keeping the members informed. “We help to educate them not only about the organization but about the business side because if you can’t cultivate your career from that perspective you cannot have a career,” Mike commented.
After moving to New York from college Mike did a stint in PR. “That helped teach me that I am a product that I had to market. So what we do with some of the programs is help instill that into the minds of our members. But they have to come to the sessions to be able to get and understand and learn how to do that,” he explained.
Both Mike and Jae Je emphasized the importance of having members get involved. “This is a union and the union only works as well as everybody’s commitment to it,” commented Mike.
I asked Mike what he felt the members should do to better understand the organization and he suggested that step #1 is to attend a member orientation. I can vouch for that because that was when my eyes were opened about how much SAG-AFTRA offers, from better treatment at acting gigs to educational courses through its Conservatory program, to people to turn to when you’re having a problem while on set, to outside educational and social service resources.
Jae Je further emphasized that the members also have a responsibility to do their homework. “If I were in NYC and said there was nothing to do that would be an idiotic statement. It would be my responsibility to find out what there is to do and the same goes for our members,” she commented.
Signing up for the Conservatory was what Mike suggested as step #2 and so that’s exactly what I did and I’ll be talking more about that in my next part of this series.
Step #3 is to get to know the board members and staff so when you attend any of the meetings go up to them and introduce yourself. This is your time to ask questions, network and have a face-to-face with the people who in a sense control your destiny. And those people want your guidance on how to do that.
Jae Je offered this advice to both newbies and veterans and that was to “read your emails.” While your inbox does often see news from SAG-AFTRA they take great pains to keep those emails as tight, informative and limited as possible but it’s important that you read them.
“When members open their emails they have a sense of what is going on and can pick and choose what relates to them,” commented Jae Je. They are also designed to be easily visible no matter what electronic device you are reading them on. “We make sure what we send our members is of interest and offers vital information.”
SAG-AFTRA also has a newsletter that is both mailed and visible online. This way if you want to take it with you and read it at your next gig you can.
Twice a year the organization holds membership meetings and there is a big effort to make those meetings more interactive and worthwhile so that the members want to attend to not only learn but to give their input. Topics discussed include understanding contracts, member benefits, discounts and more.
One other thing that needs to be clarified is the various entities with similar names but which are in fact separate groups. Members sometimes confuse SAG-AFTRA with the separate Foundations and The Actors Fund.
SAG-AFTRA is the union for the members.
The SAG Foundation (sagfoundation.org) and the AFTRA Foundation sagaftra.org/aftrafoundation, are two organizations that provide free services to their members. Those foundations exist to serve their members without any use of member dues. The SAG Foundation offers such programs as LifeRaft, Conversations and NYCAP which loosely explained are opportunities to learn, see screenings and hear from regularly working actors. The AFTRA Foundation offers some scholarships and funds.
Then there is The Actors Fund, which again is totally separate. They are a welfare organization for everyone in the industry (actorsfund.org). They do a lot of social services, actors work programs, and retirement housing.
Anyone who is SAG-AFTRA has access to all of these organizations by virtue of their membership.
The Road to SAG-AFTRA
Okay so let’s take a step back because before jumping in you need to decide whether you will be able to swim and not sink. If you are a non-union member with aspirations of becoming SAG-AFTRA you need to do your homework before taking that dive.
The first question you should answer before becoming a SAG-AFTRA member is whether you are ready to play in that field. And keep in mind that first you have to earn the ability to be able to join the union and then you have a pretty hefty one-time fee and additional annual fees to actually become and keep your membership.
In today’s world non-union jobs seem plentiful and easier to get. SAG-AFTRA probably isn’t thrilled that those jobs exist but that is a reality. Once you become a SAG-AFTRA member you can no longer accept a non-union job. That said, when you join the union, make sure that you are in a position to get the SAG-AFTRA jobs.
There’s no doubt that being SAG-AFTRA is much nicer. When you are working you clearly get treated better, earn more pay, may qualify for residuals, often have more access to food and are eligible to earn credits toward retirement and health care each time you work. Some of those non-union jobs can really run you ragged with very little to show for it at the end of the day. But, that said, if you are working consistently you don’t want to move on until you will also work regularly in the SAG-AFTRA world.
SAG-AFTRA – One Union – One Voice
Okay, enough said. Now it’s time to talk about what SAG-AFTRA is all about. To begin with this is a powerful organization with over 165,000 actors, announcers, broadcasters, journalists, dancers, DJs, news writers, news editors, program hosts, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists, reporters and other media professionals.
The union is headquartered on both the East and West Coasts and you’ll often hear conversations about who feels which is the better location, since both are good places for these artists to be living.
The goal of SAG-AFTRA is to protect its members and ensure they are being treated fairly, paid properly, and have working conditions that meet their standards. SAG-AFTRA is the one that negotiates the contracts and enforces the rules within those contracts.
And the organization is more than that because it offers an educational component as well as other benefits such as health and pension options.
The different parts of SAG-AFTRA are what this series of articles will focus on, from the educational component known as the SAG-AFTRA Conservatory, to the many resources.
The good news for new members as mentioned above is that there is a New Member Orientation you can attend that will overwhelm you with all that SAG-AFTRA offers. That meeting will also inspire you because SAG-AFTRA offers its members a whole lot of great support and opportunities to take advantage of. And most of them are part of your membership dues.
The list of what SAG-AFTRA offers is so extensive that I’ll be taking them one at a time in upcoming articles. I figure as a newbie to the SAG-AFTRA world my questions will be the same ones other newbies have and upcoming newbies will be asking.
FINALIZING MY FIRST MEETING
By the time I was taking a few pics and getting ready to leave I felt surrounded by the energy that both Mike and Jae Je were exuding. Clearly this new home was creating a new “joie de vivre.”
“We are re-energized now. We are feeling like okay, wow!” said Jae Je but right behind her Mike echoed, “So am I” and added, “every member that I talked to is excited about being in this new space. There is so much glass, so much light. It feels comfortable and it is our SAG-AFTRA home away from home. We invite everyone to come by, visit and get to know what their dues are paying for and get to understand all the services available to them.
“I am wild about the space and the organization. I know that we have a lot to do, we know what it is and we are preparing ourselves to get it done,” concluded Mike.
So now Mike, Jae Je, Bernadine, Gina and the rest of the staff are very focused on making this a one voice union.
Feel free to pass along your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org so I can help you answer them. And in the meantime, make sure to poke around in their web site at www.sagaftra.org. That is your homework.