By Frank Melcori

While Chicago has long been called a working-class town, over the last two decades it’s gained a reputation as a theater capital. But if the city’s actors want to work in commercials, film, or TV, they must go through one of two unions.

These two unions–the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists–are now preparing for a possible merger after years of negotiations. Ballots were sent to members of both unions in mid-November, and all votes will have to be cast by this Monday, January 25. If the merger passes, the new union will have 123,000 members nationwide, 5,500 of them in Chicago. Advocates of the alliance believe the merger is not only a logical conclusion to decades of discussions but an important response to the increasing domination of media by corporate giants.

Eileen Willenborg is the point person for the merger in Chicago. She grew up in downstate Greenup, just northeast of Effingham, and she’s been a labor lawyer for 15 years, representing a variety of different unions–meat cutters and garment workers in New York, flight attendants in Chicago. For the last several years, she’s been the executive director of the regional office representing both SAG and AFTRA. Discussing the history of actors’ unions in Chicago and the nation, she argues that the time for a merger has finally arrived, though there is strong disagreement on both sides.

“All union problems involve the boss and the worker,” she says. “It’s the same with actors’ unions–it is a dynamic that transcends all industries. In this regard we have a PR problem. The public does not view actors as union members or people even requiring a union.”

The first actors’ union in Chicago was, of course, the Actors’ Equity Association, which was founded in New York in 1913 to represent those in the so-called legitimate theater. Before the union was started, being exploited was a condition of getting work. Every producer had his own deal–there was no minimum wage and no guarantee there would be a show the next day. But by 1919, Actors’ Equity was strong enough to join the American Federation of Labor. When film actors wanted to organize in 1934, they reportedly approached Equity, but Equity refused, citing the difference between the types of actors in each group. Equity did come up with some money, which helped to form SAG, a separate union for the movie actors. Three years later, radio performers–an often abused and exploited group–asked Equity if they could join.

“You have to remember that in the middle to late 30s, radio drama was as popular as motion pictures,” Willenborg says. “A lot of original radio drama was produced here. The radio people asked Equity to organize them, but Equity refused. Once again, they did give them money to organize themselves. AFRA then was born, that is, the American Federation of Radio Artists, for television had not come on the scene. All film production was still being done on the west coast. We were chartered here as a SAG branch only in the early 50s to do commercials on film.

“TV changed everything for both SAG and AFRA. Originally TV was all live, and SAG didn’t want to touch it. AFRA took it over, but when TV went to film SAG came back and claimed it for its jurisdiction. So AFTRA, which now included both television and radio artists, took jurisdiction over tape, and SAG did the same over film.

“In reality, the issue of merger between the unions first came up at the end of the 40s. Two or three actors’ unions was inherently not a good idea. However, by then both SAG and AFTRA were locking horns over the emerging technology of television. In 1981, SAG and AFTRA had television contracts up for negotiation. AFTRA cut a deal and was prepared to go to work. SAG, on the other hand, was prepared to strike. The producers then turned around and were ready to give the contract to AFTRA.

“At this point SAG had a rude awakening–the two unions were going to destroy one another, while the producers would obviously accept the bid most favorable to their interests. The two unions decided to enter into an agreement. They would start to talk about a merger, and in the meantime they would negotiate together in all contracts in which their jurisdictions overlapped. The producers in this situation could not play one union against the other, and, because of this process, the contracts of the two unions would become more similar.

“Since 1981, merger talks have started and stopped, and there have been a number of obstacles, as you can imagine. SAG is a national union with its headquarters in LA. AFTRA is a group of autonomous locals. AFTRA locals had their own treasuries while SAG branches did not. There were significant structural differences between the two. Each union would have to compromise and become more like one another. Eventually, AFTRA did become a national with a national treasury as opposed to its former autonomous local arrangement. The unions could look at the new merged version and still see themselves in it.

“What really gave the merger impetus, however, was the consolidation of the huge media conglomerates like Sony, Disney, Time Warner. These companies merged for greater strength. Consequently, and this is the important message behind the merger, we must merge for greater strength. Some antimerger members feel that–even with the greater numbers–it still would be a gnat on the back of the conglomerates. Perhaps, but perception is important.

“If the merger passes and you are currently a member of one union, you then will automatically become a member of the larger union. Previously, AFTRA was an open union in which anyone could join. SAG was not. New applicants will have to qualify for membership, and in this way the new union will resemble SAG. This issue and the resulting new dues structure were big hurdles to overcome.”

Willenborg thinks Actors’ Equity will eventually become part of the new union. “In 1995 the executive director of Equity asked to participate in the merger discussion,” she says. “However, it was felt at that point–that after all of the work and the rather delicate nature of the process–another player would be too disruptive. I think Equity understands what is at stake here, and we are very interested in talking with Equity as soon as possible.”

Willenborg admits there are SAG members who don’t want to join forces with AFTRA. Some movie actors, such as past SAG president Charlton Heston, resent being lumped together with TV announcers. But, Willenborg says, “SAG hasn’t been a pure actors’ union since the mid-50s, when it started to represent dancers and people in commercials.

“Listen, the biggest reason to merge for all of us is that we don’t know where media is going. We cannot live in the rearview mirror, so to speak, as some of our west coast members want, as Charlton Heston would want. The exponential growth of both the Internet and cable is staggering, and we haven’t even cracked the surface as to jurisdiction in those mediums. Who’s going to organize this? Will it be us? Will it be the communications unions? Will there be an Electronic Artists Union? What about the international ramifications? The networks and the studios already have established themselves here.

“We have to, for example, develop a greater and more active profile in Washington. We cannot depend on the National Labor Relations Board, which, I feel, is inherently antiunion. We have to be on top of a number of issues with regards to our own lobbying interests. Intellectual property rights and copyright laws and their international applications are just a few related issues that will become more important as the electronic age seriously kicks in. I believe the administrative fiscal savings resulting from the merger will allow us to develop a more effective presence in Washington. This is also true on the state level in Springfield. I can’t emphasize this enough to the membership. Merger is about the possibility of a strong future down the road. We don’t know what we can expect to deal with, but together we can move.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dan Machnik.