Forming the Guild Was Risky Business

Jan 20, 2008  •  Post A Comment

Seventy-five years ago, starting a union for actors was dangerous business. In March 1933, six actors—Berton Churchill, Grant Mitchell, Ralph Morgan, Charles Miller, Kenneth Thomson and Alden Gay—got together to discuss an organization for film actors. “These actors were risking their careers,” said Kathy Connell, producer of the SAG Awards ceremony. “A handful of studio moguls ran the town and made all the decisions. Not even the biggest stars of the day had power.”
The organizing efforts for actors that had gone before told a bleak story. In 1912, the Actors Society of America disbanded. In 1916, an actors union called the White Rats went on strike, a move that backfired when they were all blacklisted. When Actors’ Equity went on strike in 1919, the actors were taunted as Bolsheviks.
No wonder, then, that in 1933 the actors met in secret until they formally founded the organization in June; they had their first meeting in October.
The impetus to risk everything was the hellish working conditions. Boris Karloff filed a complaint with the new Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences after he was forced to work a 25-hour day on “Frankenstein.” Then, in response to the Bank Holiday in 1933, the Producers Association decided to impose a 50% pay cut across the board for all actors.
By 1935, the guild was granted an American Federation of Labor charter by the Associated Actors & Artistes of America (Four A’s). Membership passed 5,000.
In 1937, thousands of stars, contract players and extras voted to strike at midnight on May 10, and Joseph Schenk, chairman of the board of 20th Century Fox, and Louis B. Mayer, MGM vice president in charge of production, became the first studio moguls to recognize the new Screen Actors Guild. Thirteen producers signed the first SAG contract; minimum pay was $25 a day, $35 for stunts and $5.50 for extras.
The Conference of Studio Unions, which presented itself as an alternative to the IA, held strikes in the mid-1940s; SAG didn’t honor CSU’s picket lines, but the affair was pivotal for another reason. “This event allowed Ronald Reagan to rise in the organization,” said SAG historian Valerie Yaros. “He succeeded Robert Montgomery as SAG president in 1947, after having impressed everyone on the board with his astute handling of the CSU/IATSE conflict.”
Mr. Reagan’s ascension was related to a guild resolution regarding conflict of interest: that actors with a “primary and continuing interest” in production may not hold office in the Screen Actors Guild. Seven guild board members submitted their resignations, and Mr. Montgomery’s resignation in 1959 led to the board of directors voting to pick Mr. Reagan as his replacement.
Television became a dominant issue by 1948. In 1940, Equity, the American Federation of Radio Artists and SAG had decided that jurisdiction over development of television would be shared jointly. However, as TV began to move from an idea to reality, the stakes were raised. “This consumed most of the guild’s time starting in 1948,” said Ms. Yaros.
The guild’s 1948 theatrical agreement with producers included a “stop-gap clause” for negotiations on wage scales and working conditions on films made for TV, and eventually on residuals for feature films that might later be licensed to TV. The Four A’s decided to create a new union for TV, the Television Authority (TvA), but SAG declined to join, claiming jurisdiction over any filmed TV content.
Many of the issues raised by the new medium of TV came to a head in 1952, when the National Labor Relations Board held elections, and the Screen Actors Guild defeated the TvA for representation of actors in the motion pictures for television. (The American Federation of Radio Artists gained jurisdiction over live TV, becoming AFTRA.) SAG President Walter Pidgeon led the guild’s first strike, on Dec. 1, 1952 (ending Feb. 18, 1953), over filmed (as opposed to live) TV commercials, which resulted in the first commercials contract.
The fight for payments for TV reuse wasn’t over, however. From Aug. 5-16, 1955, the guild held a strike against TV producers for increased residuals. “They have adamantly refused throughout the six weeks of negotiations to consider any formula, any formula at all, which would require the paying of one cent on the second run of the film,” said then-SAG Executive Secretary Jack Dales.
The guild’s first major strike took place in 1960, over post-Aug. 1, 1948, residuals for feature films sold to TV. “This was the first theatrical strike,” said Ms. Yaros. “There had been a clause since 1948 with producers that said when you sell these films to TV, you’ll negotiate. Some of the smaller companies paid residuals, but not the big ones.”
The strike, from March 7 to April 18, stopped eight major films in mid-production, including Elizabeth Taylor’s “Butterfield 8,” Jack Lemmon’s “The Wackiest Ship in the Army” and Marilyn Monroe’s “Let’s Make Love.”
The settlement created the guild’s first pension and welfare plan (producers made a lump payment of $2.65 million), but residuals still were limited to films made after Jan. 31, 1960. “Some people are still furious over this,” said Ms. Yaros. “Mickey Rooney led a class-action suit in 1981 over the issue of the pre-1960 films, joined by actors including Rock Hudson, Paul Newman, Lana Turner, Shelley Winters, Barbara Stanwyck and many others.”
He lost the suit.
The guild also has a history of taking a stand against racial discrimination. In 1943, Academy Award-winning actress Hattie McDaniel asked the guild to form a committee to discuss the problems faced by black performers in films. In 1963, SAG affirmed its opposition to discrimination in casting, influencing producers to add a nondiscrimination clause to the 1963 theatrical agreement. Later that year, Harry Belafonte, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Charlton Heston and other SAG members joined Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the civil rights march on Washington.
To encourage actors to participate in independent features, in 1969 SAG proposed its first low-budget theatrical contract, which was approved by the largest membership vote in the history of the union. In 1975, Kathleen Nolan became the guild’s first female national president.
“The next big event is in 1980, with a strike over the issue of videocassettes,” said Ms. Yaros. “It was a huge issue, and it was a brutal, long strike.” President William Schallert led the guild out July 21 through Oct. 23 to establish contract terms for pay TV and videocassette production. With an “Evening of Stars” benefit at the Hollywood Bowl, the guild’s strike fund raised $500,000 for affected members.
The SAG Foundation was founded in 1985, in part to aid actors in need. “The establishment of the foundation benefits not only our members but the community at large,” said Ms. Connell, the SAG Awards producer. “We have national literacy programs for children and our members read to schools all across the country.”
SAG moved into its new national headquarters in 1986. In 1987 residual payments hit the $1 billion mark, and in 1988 the SAG/AFTRA TV commercials strike, March 21-April 15, achieved payment for cable use.
As entertainment changed, the guild changed along with it. In 1993, the guild issued its first contract for interactive content, with more than 100 multimedia productions signed. In 2005, when the Apple video iPod debuted, SAG, AFTRA, the Directors Guild of America and the Writers Guild East and West invited a “dialogue that ensures that our members are properly compensated for this exploitation of their work.” In 2006 the guild negotiated its first contract for entertainment on the mobile platform for “Lost” mobisodes.
“We kept our eye on what was considered new technology even then,” said Ms. Connell. “First it was talkies, then it was television. New technology was VCR, cable TV, videogames and now it’s the Internet. Nothing has really changed in terms of the guild’s desire to represent actors in different media according to how the industry is changing.”
The guild’s membership has grown to 120,000 across the U.S., with 20 regional branches in addition to New York and Los Angeles. In celebration of its 75 years, the guild gets a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s a star that none of the guild’s founding members could have imagined.


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