The face of the Screen Actors Guild may start to look a little bit different this year.
For tens of thousands of people in the acting and voice acting professions, particularly those who are members of SAG and or AFTRA, this change could make all the difference in the world.
Find out more in my special interview with Edoardo Ballerini, a candidate for the SAG Board of Directors and member of Unite For Strength, a group seeking the merger of SAG and AFTRA.
VOX: Thank you for being here on VOX Daily, Edoardo. For those of us who are unfamiliar with Unite For Strength, could you please tell us a little bit about what it is, who is involved and what your mission is?
EDOARDO BALLERINI: Thank you, Stephanie! Unite for Strength is a group of 31 performers running for the Board of the Screen Actors Guild. We are television stars, journeymen, stunt performers, background players, and voice artists. In short, we represent the full breadth of membership. Our mission is to merge SAG and AFTRA so performers are united at the bargaining table once and for all.
VOX: You’re personally running for a position on the SAG Board of Directors. What made you want to run?
EDOARDO: Once I started studying the issues facing actors, and the direction our current leadership has taken us in, I felt an obligation. And, not to be too modest, but I think I’d be good at it. My experiences as an actor, having been everything from a day player to a lead, on television and in film, having done commercials and VO, animation and video games, have given me an understanding of what faces nearly every segment of the acting population.
VOX: If elected, what will you bring to the Board of Directors? Do you have any particular goals in mind?
EDOARDO: Unite for Strength has the primary goal of merging SAG and AFTRA. We believe it is in everybody’s best interest, and that all other issues pale in comparison right now. Our employers have been merging nearly every year and we should be, too. On a personal note, I would like to bring civility and common sense to the Board. I would also like to spearhead outreach programs to younger members to get them involved.
VOX: One of your running mates happens to be a fan favorite around here, voice actor Bob Bergen. What’s it like in the Unite For Strength camp? Are you the only voice actors represented among the candidates?
EDOARDO: Bob is wonderful! A true gentleman, and a sharp mind. Our slate is remarkably cohesive and supportive of each other. Running for office isn’t easy, but the group is dedicated both to the cause of merger and to each other. And many of us do voice work. Let’s not overlook Marcia Wallace, the voice of Mrs. Krabappel on The Simpsons!
VOX: Edoardo, there’s a lengthy list of names listed on the Unite For Strength site that show support, including notable performers such as Sally Field, Alec Baldwin, Tom Hanks and our industry’s very own, Don LaFontaine. What’s it like to have some of the biggest name in show business supporting the cause? Why are they behind you and your colleagues?
EDOARDO: I am heartened not only that we have “big names” behind us, but who those names are. Tom, Sally, Alec and Don are not only stars, but they are respected and respectful individuals. Their support is rooted in remembering just how important a union is to the non-stars, the people who need residuals to live, and a stable Pension & Health plan for their families. It’s important to understand that both sides on this election want the same thing – the best deals for performers. What we differ in is how to achieve these deals. Our supporters believe merging SAG and AFTRA will make that happen far faster than warring between the two unions ever could.
VOX: What can people do to get involved? Do you have to be a member of SAG to be part of this or help out?
EDOARDO: You do have to be a Hollywood SAG member to vote, of course, but there are many ways to get involved. I would like to see younger actors, even those not yet a part of SAG or AFTRA, to take an interest in their future unions, or better still… union. What we do now will affect them more than anybody else. Our website – www.uniteforstrength.com – has a lot of information about us, and our group on Facebook is becoming a great networking vehicle for actors. We’re even planning a “live” networking event (imagine that!) for our Facebook group in early September. We’re over 500 strong and growing!
VOX: You mentioned that voting has already been open for almost a week. When does voting end and how do people vote?
EDOARDO: Ballots were mailed on the 19th, and I just got mine today. (I confess it was thrilling to vote for myself and all my fellow candidates.) Every Hollywood SAG member in good standing will receive a ballot by mail. They are not due back until the 19th of September, but it’s always best to vote right away. Otherwise these things tend to get lost or forgotten. As they say in Chicago, “Vote early, vote often.”
VOX: What would it mean for the members of SAG should candidates from Unite For Strength win positions on the board? Is there a certain number of seats available or are all the seats on the board of directors open for new directors?
EDOARDO: There are 55 members of the Board, but only 33 open seats this year. It’s a bit like the U.S. Senate or House in that not all seats are up each election. However, a quick glance at the numbers shows that if we get all of our 31 candidates in we would be a majority voice and therefore able to present our agenda of merger without delay. I believe we would instantly be stronger and SAG members would be better protected and represented.
VOX: How would a Unite For Strength Board of Directors affect voice actors? Do you have any specific aims to achieve for voice over performers?
EDOARDO: Voice actors may be the most vulnerable performers when it comes to having two unions, and have been for some time. Merger is essential to us in voice work. Because VO work is so deeply split between SAG and AFTRA, two things happen. First, a performer ends up contributing to two separate Pension & Health plans. And second, a producer can shop between the two unions for a less actor-friendly contract. I know of several VO actors who end up qualifying for neither health plan, but would have easily qualified under a merged union. I also know several VO actors who are working more and earning less. That’s not right.
VOX: One of Unite For Strength’s main objectives is to unite SAG with AFTRA, an idea that has been bandied around for decades, even brought to the fore by past SAG president, Melissa Gilbert, just to be shot down.
EDOARDO: It was hardly “shot down!” It missed by a few hundred votes, despite an aggressive campaign against it! It actually achieved majority support in SAG at 58.8%, just shy of the 60% needed according to the by-laws. Moreover, an independent study was conducted shortly thereafter that revealed that 78% of members supported merger! So why didn’t it pass? Simple. Poor turnout. I think we’re starting to see the importance of taking an active interest in our unions! We would not be in this mess today if we had merged in 2003. There would still be issues, of course, but we wouldn’t be negotiating with our employers with one hand tied behind our backs.
VOX: I see, although defeated, it was actually quite close and there was a significant amount of support for the motion to merge. That’s interesting. I have a few more questions for you, if you don’t mind.
a) What needs to happen to make a successful merger?
EDOARDO: There is a long history of successful mergers in this country, the most famous being the AFL and the CIO. I won’t pretend that you can just snap your fingers and voila! you’re merged. There is a great deal of planning and consideration necessary. But what needs to happen is this: people need to understand how necessary it is for their futures. And it is.
VOX: Why wouldn’t people want the two unions to merge?
EDOARDO: The general fears are these: one, that the Pension plans would be at risk, and two, that the union would be too diversified to properly serve actors, that is, that the new union would suddenly comprise a whole lot of “non-actors” like broadcasters. To the first point, people should know that all pension plans are Federally protected, down to the last penny. There is no risk of losing a single cent. To the second point, we are already such a diverse group! We are theatrical actors, extras, stunt players, animation voices, industrial performers, commercial actors, promo voices, stand-ins, and so on. The Screen Actors Guild was once comprised of film actors only.
That day has long passed. As a final thought, consider this: any union’s ultimate weapon is the threat of a strike. You never want it to come to that, but it’s always a union’s right if approved by its membership. Today, if we were to strike, the producers lose out on scripted shows, but they can fall back on reality programming, game shows, talk shows, sports, the news, the list goes on and on. Imagine if in this strike scenario, all of that were to come to a halt at once! Now that’s real incentive for the producers to make a good deal! Honestly, I haven’t heard a compelling argument against merger.
VOX: What has prevented merger thus far? Is it only to do with a small percentage of people in power who don’t want merger?
As I said, there is majority support – in both unions – for merger, but it fell agonizingly short. My sense is that people were afraid of the unknown. But the tide has turned. It’s no secret now what’s happening. We’re fighting with each other, and we’re undercutting each other. We’ve had a look over the proverbial cliff. And it’s a long fall coming unless we unite for strength.
Edoardo Ballerini is a candidate for the SAG Board of Directors with the Unite For Strength slate.
Beyond a well established on-camera career, Edoardo has also worked extensively behind the mic, voicing for Infiniti, Toyota, Sony PSP Talkman, Tyco, BMW, and on the upcoming animated series “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” for Warner Bros. He also recently completed an audiobook of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.”
Looking forward to hearing from you,