The History of SAG-AFTRA

Tara Parachuk | June 12, 2015

SAG-AFTRA headquarters exterior

The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), comes as the result of merging two great American labor unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists. Both unions were created during the tumult of the Great Depression in the 1930s with the shared mission to fight for and secure the strongest protections for media artists.

In 2012, members of SAG and members of AFTRA voted in favor of merger thereby unifying their efforts to preserve victories from hard-fought battles in days gone by and continue to lobby in effort to prolong and increase those protections in the 21st century and for the foreseeable future.

SAG-AFTRA media artists comprise of:

  •     actors
  •     announcers
  •     broadcast journalists
  •     dancers
  •     deejays
  •     news writers
  •     news editors
  •     program hosts
  •     puppeteers
  •     recording artists
  •     singers
  •     stunt performers
  •     voice over artists
  •     and other media professionals

A significant number of media artists were members of both unions, creating a significant overlap of talent who paid fees to belong to both. Voice over artists are prime examples of media artists whose work is represented by both entities. Merger made practical sense for both unions and their respective members to come together under one banner, SAG-AFTRA.

The work created and performed by SAG-AFTRA media artists is seen and heard in theaters, on broadcast television and radio, sound recordings, the Internet, games, mobile devices, home video and more. Their faces and voices entertain and inform America as well as people around the world.

As a union, SAG-AFTRA commits to organizing all work done under their jurisdictions, negotiating the best wages, working conditions, health and pension benefits, generating work opportunities, enforcing contracts; and protecting SAG-AFTRA members from unauthorized use of their work.

The History of AFTRA: The National Labor Union

In 1937 the Radio Actors Guild in Los Angeles banded together with Radio Equity in New York to create the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA). Not long after, the Associated Actors and Artists of America (the Four A’s) granted a charter to work with the new union. By the end of 1937 membership numbers jumped to over 2000, covering almost all performers in all major broadcasting centers. By 1939, just two years after its inception, AFRA covered 70% of all collective live radio broadcasting agreements.

In 1950 the Four A’s independently created the Television Authority, negotiating the very first television contract. In 1951 AFRA won battle with major recoding labels to implement the long sought after Phonograph Recoding Code for singers. On September 17, 1952 The Television Authority and AFRA merged together and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists was born.

For seventy years the union has been working hard to create fair compensation, treatment, and contracts for its members. AFTRA is dedicated to reflecting the American scene and provides equal employment opportunities for its members in all locals. Their objectives are to increase employment opportunities for women, minorities, seniors, people with disabilities, and to uphold the Non-Discrimination/Affirmation Action plan for all AFTRA members.

The History of the Screen Actors Guild

Before 1933, if you wanted to pursue acting, you were in for hard times. Actors were subjected to substandard working conditions and exploitation from the production studios. There were no restrictions on the number of hours they were forced to work or meal breaks they were allowed to take. Studios behaved as if they owned the actors, telling them what to think, what morals to have, even who to marry. Actors were often forced to sign seven year contracts, and had no choice in the roles they played.

A group of actors collectively formed SAG in 1933 after years of being subjected to this kind of treatment. It was a meeting of six minds that got it all started. Before long, just three months after the first meeting, the founding council was born. This consisted of four first officers including President Ralph Morgan, Vice President Alan Mowbray, Secretary Kenneth Thomson, and Treasurer Lucile Gleason. There were 17 actors on the board of directors; among them was Boris Karloff who reportedly joined after the grueling hours spent on set of Frankenstein.

The Screen Actors Guild’s first President, New York lawyer turned actor, Ralph Morgan walked away from his practice to pursue acting in 1908 at the age of 24.

The largest actors’ labor union before SAG was the Actors Equity Association. Up until SAG was formed no union had been able to overcome the heavy hand of production studios. In Ralph’s last two year term, 1938-1940, as president of SAG, he enacted the first Agency Regulations, dealt with the often overlooked issues of background actors, and fought off the tyranny of Chicago mobster Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, and his Hollywood cohorts, who were trying to gain rule over all national actors’ unions.

National Labor Relations Act

In 1937 SAG won battle with studio giants by finally getting them to sign the National Labor Relations Act . This was a major milestone of empowerment for actors. With the new ability for actors to negotiate their own contracts, Jimmie Stewart set a standard for the industry that is still enforced by actors to this day, agreeing to work on a film for a percentage of the gross profit.

SAG-AFTRA Membership

If you’re interested in learning more about SAG-AFTRA, including how to become a member, visit the SAG-AFTRA website.

The History of Financial Core

Under the National Labor Relations Act (Sec. 8 (a) (3)) an employer and a labor organization may agree to condition employment upon membership in the union. The 1963 ruling limited the burdens of membership upon which employment may be conditioned to the payment of initiation fees and monthly dues. In the words of the court, “Membership as a condition of employment is whittled down to its financial core.” Or, in other words, “If an employee in a union shop unit refuses to respect any union-imposed obligations other than the duty to pay dues and fees, and membership in the union is therefore denied or terminated, the condition of membership for 8 (a) (3) purposes is nevertheless satisfied and the employee may not be discharged for non-membership even though he is not a formal member.”

Who Does The Financial Core Affect?

The primary impact of the financial core issue has been in the acting industry. By joining the SAG-AFTRA as a financial core member, an actor can pursue work in states such as California, where union membership is a prerequisite to work in the industry. Full members of these unions are prohibited from working non-union jobs, but financial core members are not restricted by the rules of the unions and so may work either union or non-union jobs. When working a union job, they would receive the same benefits as full constitutional members. Similarly, in the Writers Guild of America, financial core members are able to remain working during labor strikes.

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  • Avatar for john branagan
    john branagan
    September 11, 2021, 7:54 pm

    Is it time for an article about the decline of SAG/AFTRA?

    • Avatar for Niki Clark
      Niki Clark
      September 14, 2021, 9:03 am

      Hi John,

      Good question! I’ll bring it to the team to see if this post can use an update. Thanks for piquing our interest and giving us ways to expand our blog material.