Hollywood awards season invites us to celebrate stars of the big screen – their creativity and dazzling talent. But the greater wonder may be the policies of the professional organization that represents them.
Behind the price-worthy services is a union that opposes the traditional wage model. It deserves a closer look.
The Screen Actors Guild, now affiliated with the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, represents more than 160,000 actors, dancers, singers and speakers. She prioritizes talent over seniority. The approach is far too rare among unions.
For many industries, unionization enforces one size fits all and merit is not rewarded. Workers who want and deserve better wages must adhere to the standard rate negotiated by their union and employer. Meanwhile, unions protect workers regardless of their merit – even in critical industries like care and education, where substandard work can directly harm others.
This is partly because most unions see seniority as a priority. One teachers’ union, for example, insists that a younger teacher shouldn’t be paid more than her older colleagues, no matter how well she does in class. To protect seniority, such unions set not only a wage floor but also a wage ceiling. The system discourages ingenuity, creativity and hard work. This can be particularly unattractive for younger employees who want to be rewarded for their efforts.
Entertainment unions like SAG-AFTRA, on the other hand, only set a salary floor. Many sports associations take a similar approach. Members can expect a minimum salary, but can negotiate higher salaries based on their unique talents and ability to attract an audience. “Nothing,” says the general contract for the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, will prevent a performer from “negotiating and obtaining better terms and conditions of employment” than those contained in the union contract.
In other words, players are free to compete for the most competitive terms they can get. Some are paid more for being better at their craft, not just for being another year on the job. Under this model, people with exceptional talent are not constrained by arbitrary salary caps, and workers are motivated to continuously improve their skills.
Admittedly, the model is not perfect. In exchange for representation, members of the Screen Actors Guild adhere to what is known as Global Rule 1: Union actors do not work on non-union projects. The result can be a monopoly where production companies have to comply with union demands if they want enough and the right actors for their projects.
Still, the core values – pay for merit, worker autonomy, incentives and rewards for excellence – are spot on.
So why do so many unions still cling to a one-size-fits-all industrial model that is a century old? It doesn’t encourage productivity, nor does it reward the best and brightest of workers. This union model may have benefited 20th-century factory workers, but it fails in today’s world of skilled and highly mobile workers.
The Screen Actors Guild thrives because it has evolved to meet the needs of a 21st century workforce. It does not use a traditional union operating model, but operates more like a professional association. It provides valuable services and represents the diverse needs of the individual members.
Other unions should take note, as should policy makers. When union laws fail to address workers’ needs, policy makers can and should act. A promising example is the Employee Rights Act, which was introduced in Congress in 2022. The legislation would allow employers to grant pay rises to deserving employees regardless of collective bargaining rules. By restoring the link between merit and reward, the measure would put employees back in charge of their own professional success.
As workplaces become more diverse and specialized, well-designed 21st-century policies and union models must become the norm, not the exception. Hollywood isn’t the only place where excellent workers can shine.
F.Vincent Vernuccio (@vinnievernuccio) is senior labor policy advisor to Workers for Opportunity and president of the Institute for the American Worker. He is the author of “Union Organizing for the 21st Century: Solutions for the Ailing Labor Movement.”
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