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AFTRA’s Roberta Reardon: Grilled

On merging with SAG, figuring out new media and running a union in hard times.

 

With her tumultuous two-year first term out of the way, and unanimously re-elected to a second go-around last month (she was unopposed), AFTRA national president Roberta Reardon looks to embark on a more strategic agenda. Indeed, having successfully negotiated a bunch of contracts last year — broadcast TV, sound recording and commercials, among them – she now can concentrate on legacy-building initiatives.
 
There’s the always possible merger with rival … er, sister guild SAG, which has rejected AFTRA’s marriage proposals twice before. There’s also the vexing issue of new media, which is hard for guild negotiators everywhere. Reardon wants to make that a major priority in term 2 and make AFTRA the first talent guild to really get a handle on the digital issue.
 
TheWrap recently caught up with the New York-based actor, whose organization represents 70,000 actors, recording artists and broadcasters and who was just elected to a seat on the AFL-CIO Executive Council.
 
So you’re talking merger with SAG again. Don’t you guys, like, hate other?
I think there’s always room for improvement in that relationship. Things have been a little difficult, but I’m an optimistic person. I see real opportunities for us to work together. Take the commercial contract negotiations. I would like to replicate that experience as soon as possible. Both unions set aside their differences and worked collegially. They ended up coming out with a strong contract. That is the model of how we should work together going forward.
 
How likely do you think a merger is this time around?
I was involved both times it was attempted, and on both occasions, it required enormous resources and time — and the aftermath each time was tough. It was difficult to come so close and not obtain it.
 
More and more members of both unions understand the principles that would make the merger a good idea. It has to be a thoughtful process — it can’t be rushed, and it can’t be done before the next round of negotiations.
 
And SAG has some work to do internally. They have serious problems. That’s all I can say about that.
 
Both previous efforts broke down because SAG didn’t want non-actors in their guild. Do you think they’ll change their minds? Will you change your membership?
It’s all of us or none of us. I’m not interested in carving up AFTRA’s membership for other people’s desires. The days of boutique unionism are long gone.
 
It seems like figuring out how to negotiate terms on new media might consume a fair amount of your day. Are you making any progress in terms of figuring out terms for technologies and platforms that may not yet exist?
All the major contracts negotiated in the last two years have language about new media. We have to be very aware that just because we’ve negotiated certain terms and conditions, that doesn’t mean that’s where the industry’s going. You don’t want to end up structuring a contract around the next eight-track tape.
 
The thing is, employers don’t have a crystal ball, either. Nobody knows exactly where technology is going. If you told me six years ago what I could be doing on my iPhone, I wouldn’t have believed you. But it’s clear that it’s not going away. The first thing we have to do is make sure we’re covered — we have to make sure we have terms that can grow. That’s the problem with any negotiation.
 
It can’t be easy running a labor union in this economy.
The state of broadcast is not good. Local advertising has completely dried up, and local stations are completely under the gun. We’re seeing layoffs of non-union employees, salary freezes. It’s been really, really been tough.
 
Our members who work in broadcast are very grateful they have union protection right now. And it’s not just broadcasters. Sound recording has been in turmoil since 2000, when music downloads started to take their toll on the industry. Things have tightened up all around.
 
But it’s a great time to be in a labor union when people are struggling. Some people say the American labor movement has suffered from its success. It brought so many people into the middle class, but now people are being laid off, they’re in danger of losing their health care — and these days, the average American worker works way more than 40 hours a week. There’s a real opportunity to have a conversation with people who are not members and explain to them how a union can help them.
 
More and more, people are beginning to understand that unions are not working against their wishes. They represent their wishes. And these days, it’s a lot easier to make that argument.
 
So are you growing your membership right now?
We’re doing an enormous amount of internal organizing, actually. Nothing can happen unless you have a strong, active membership base. That’s really going to be my top priority — to make sure we have members around the country really aligned with their union.
 
A union is only as strong as the members who choose to get involved. It’s an enormous amount of work. We’re doing training around the country for the elected leadership and the rank and file to understand what the union’s strategic plans are and what they can do to help. It may be things like prepping for our network code negotiations, or our wages and working conditions committees.
 
What else do you have on your agenda?
We’re doing extensive work on our non-broadcast industrial contract right now. That represents an awful lot of work, but it’s all non-dramatic. It’s significant for our members who live outside New York or Los Angeles.
 
We also have interactive games later this year. We’re bringing people in right now to talk about the wages and working conditions in that industry. Sound recording artists and network news correspondence are coming up next year, too. We’re really looking to get people into a room and have conversations with them.
 
In terms of public policy initiatives, there’s the Employee Free Choice Act and the Performance Rights Act that are both slowly passing through D.C.
 
There’s always a lot of work to do.