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Valley Perspective

There's a Lot Riding on SAG Strike

For actors, it's livelihood, professionalism, even dignity. But Los Angeles also stands to lose if members of the unions can't make a decent living.

September 10, 2000|JOE O'CONNOR | Joe O'Connor lives in Valley Village

I'm a professional actor. I make my living by doing film, television, theater, voice-overs and commercials. Unfortunately, right now I'm not doing commercials or voice-overs because both my unions, the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television & Radio Artists, are on strike against the advertisers.

We've been on strike for more than four months--the longest strike in the history of SAG.

We're on strike because the advertisers made outrageous demands earlier this year when the time came to renegotiate our commercial contract.

Among these demands were the elimination of residuals (which we've had since 1953), no union contract of any kind for commercials appearing on the Internet and no monitoring system to ensure that we are not cheated out of residuals. (There is little doubt that we are.)

These demands would have a devastating effect on our livelihood. I can only conclude that the advertisers are out to destroy our unions.

Our unions mean a great deal to me.

I've been a proud member of SAG for 23 years and of AFTRA for 20. In that time, I've done television and film and a lot of commercials and voice-overs.

Without the union, I would not receive the residuals that have helped pay for my home here in the San Fernando Valley. Without the union, neither my wife nor I would receive medical overage. I'm also vested in both unions, and when the time comes, I'll receive a pension.

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I've worked damn hard to become a professional actor. Moving to New York right out of college to study and do theater, I worked odd jobs for almost 10 years before I could support myself full-time as an actor.

When I started booking commercials, it made a huge difference in my life. And I was good at it.

They could give me a lot of commercial copy, and I could make it funny 120 times, from 10 different angles over a 12-hour day. I wasn't getting rich, by a long shot, but I could afford of a few of the nicer things in life.

I and thousands of other SAG actors save the advertising agencies and their clients a great deal of money by being experienced, well-trained professionals. We walk onto the set prepared. A good deal of the time we find humor where there was none on the page and improvise better lines than were written, knowing full well, of course, that the ad agency will take credit.

Just getting a job can mean driving from one end of Los Angeles to another, sometimes going to 40 or 50 auditions and call-backs. Then the commercial can run exclusively on cable--for which we're paid only a small flat fee (something we're fighting to change). Or perhaps worse, the commercial will not run at all.

Now, when the economy is doing so well and ad revenue is at record highs, advertisers are crying poverty and trying to break our unions.

There's a lot riding on this strike: For us, it's our livelihood, our professionalism and to a great extent, our dignity.

But it also means a lot to Los Angeles. Most of the 135,000 members of SAG and AFTRA live in the Los Angeles area.

Our kids go to school with your kids. For every actor who can't make a decent living--and that's what we're talking about here--there's a home not sold or a car not bought or a restaurant with an empty table. It's less tax money for schools, police and fire departments.

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Any time a group of workers is exploited, all working people are less secure. Today it's SAG. Perhaps tomorrow it will be your livelihood.

I believe that we will win because we're skilled, we're right and we're united. But it won't be easy.

We're fighting advertisers whose influence over magazines, radio, television and, yes, newspapers is so powerful that this commercial strike has been virtually ignored by the media.

When you see us picketing a nonunion commercial, passing out leaflets or marching, understand that we're working people with families to support, just like you.

Our fight is to some degree your fight. We're your neighbors.

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