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Unions and Guilds

The television industry is one of the more highly organized, or unionized, in the United States. Qualified candidates are numerous for a few available jobs. Producing and airing programs lend themselves to odd working hours, location shoots, holidays, weekends, long working days and often short-term temporary employment. Such conditions would normally permit management to exploit employees by offering low wages, few fringe benefits, and no job security to employees. Historically, unionization in U. S. industry began to eliminate such exploitation, and the television industry is no exception. click here for a full list of guilds and unions

Although some of the unions in television and film today grew out of earlier creative guilds like Actors' Equity and the Dramatists' Guild, the primary reference point for effective unionization of the industry was passage of the National Labor Relations Act in 1935. Known as the Wagner Act, in honor of its congressional sponsor, it was a major piece of "New Deal" legislation passed during the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration. The NLRA made it legal for workers to form unions. It set up the National Labor Relations Board as an arm of government to enforce it. Unions could bargain for wages and working conditions.

Today, unions and guilds representing employees in television and film bargain with networks and production companies for minimum wage scales, pension funds and other fringe benefits. A major bargaining issue in recent years between producers and creative guilds has been residuals. Residuals is the term used to describe royalties paid to actors, directors, and writers for airing programs originally and in subsequent replays and re-runs, and for cassette sales and rentals.

The degree of unionization in television today varies considerably by geographic region. Television stations and cable systems in most of the larger media markets like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago, are almost totally unionized. Local television stations and cable systems in small markets, however, may not be unionized. Networks and major production companies are all unionized, whereas small independent producers tend not to be.

The term "union" in the television industry describes labor organizations that represent technical personnel, and are referred to as "below-the-line" unions. The term "guild" describes labor organizations that represent creative personnel, and are referred to as "above-the-line" unions. These designations result from their actual position on the pages of production budgets in which "creative" and "technical" costs are divided by a line. In a typical television show production budget, below-the-line costs are fixed, whereas above-the-line costs are flexible. For example, the budget for a one-hour drama enters camera operator's wages below-the-line because there is a standard wage scale in the union contract with management for camera operators shooting a one-hour drama. The salary for the show's leading actor is entered above-the-line because there is considerable disparity between a relatively unknown actor's salary and the salary of a major TV star like Tim Allen or Angela Landsbury.

Four very large unions represent most below-the-line technical personnel in television and cable today: the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians (NABET), the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), and the Communication Workers of America (CWA).

NABET began as a union of engineers at NBC in 1933. It is the only union among the four devoted exclusively to representing workers employed in broadcasting, film, recording, and allied industries. Today it is the exclusive bargaining agent for below-the-line personnel at the ABC, NBC, FOX, and PBS networks, as well as at many local independent television stations in large cities. click here for a full list of guilds and unions

IBEW is one of the largest unions in the United states and represents workers in construction, manufacturing, and utilities, in addition to below-the-line personnel at CBS, Disney, independent TV stations, and some cable companies.

IATSE was founded in New York City in 1893 as the National Alliance of Theatrical State Employees. Today, it is organized primarily along craft lines with over 800 local chapters, each representing specialized occupations within the Union's overall national membership of more than 70,000 workers. In the Los Angeles area alone, some of the occupations represented by separate local chapters are: set designers-model makers, illustrators-matte artists, customers, makeup artists-hair stylists, film editors, film cartoonists, script supervisors, film set painters, studio electricians, stagehands, and story analysts. IATSE represents almost every below-the-line occupation at the major production studios and many independent production companies that produce shows on film for theaters, television, and cable.

CWA, historically, has represented workers in the telephone industry and other common carrier fields. In recent years, it has increased its membership and influence in the cable television industry, and represents below-the-line personnel in cable multiple system operators, cable networks, and local cable companies.

There are many above-the-line guilds representing creative workers in television. The major guilds with the most influence are: the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the Directors' Guild of America (DGA), the Writers' Guild of America (East and West, known as WGAE and WGAW), and the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). Most members of these unions do not work full-time or regularly, and those who do almost never work for minimum wage scale.

AFTRA grew out of the American Federation of Radio Artists, founded in 1937. It added television performers and "television" to its name in 1952. Today, AFTRA represents over 70,000 performers nationally who appear on television or cable programs that are produced on videotape or broadcast live. In addition to actors this number includes many performers such as announcers, dancers, newspersons, sportscasters, game show emcees, and talk show hosts, stunt people, and sound effects artists. AFTRA has about 30,000 members in its Los Angeles area alone, a small percentage of whom earn their living primarily from performing on radio, cable, or television. Most television performers work other jobs to support themselves while seeking occasional temporary employment as a television, cable, film or radio performer.

SAG represents performers who appear on television or cable programs produced on film. These include feature films produced for theatrical release and later aired on television in addition to film programs produced expressly for television exhibition. Related to SAG is the Screen Extras' Guild (SEG) which represents bit performers who appear in programs produced on film. Most celebrities and successful performers belong to both AFTRA and SAG so they are not limited from performing in all three production modes of live, tape, or film.

The DGA was organized originally in 1936 as the Screen Directors' Guild by a group of famous film directors, including King Vidor and Howard Hawks. Television directors were admitted in 1950, and the name Directors' Guild of America was adopted in 1960. Today, it has a West chapter in Hollywood and an East chapter in New York City. It represents directors, associate directors, unit production managers, stage managers, and production assistants in television, and directors, assistant directors, and stage managers in film. Both chapters work cooperatively to represent their members regardless of the location of a production or shoot. The East chapter, for example, represents most play directors, and the West chapter represents most film directors.

The WGAE (East) and the WGAW (West) are incorporated separately because of differing laws of incorporation in New York and California. WGAE is located in New York City, and WGAW is located in Los Angeles. Though incorporated separately, they function as a single organization that represents the interests of over 8,000 members nationally, although the WGAE has only half the membership of the WGAW, and has a significant number of playwrights among its membership, whereas WGAW is dominated by screenwriters. In 1962, WGA also joined with sister guilds in Great Britain, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to form an international union alliance among these English-speaking nations.

The AFM began in 1896, and represents musicians, including vocalists and instrumentalists who perform live or on film, tape, record, or disk. It has local chapters throughout the United States that bargain with local television stations and cable systems in geographic regions they cover.

With computers, satellites, and digital technology globalizing electronic communication, unions and guilds will continue to add new occupational groups to their membership and become increasingly more international in scope. In a democratic society like the United States, viable unions remain necessary to provide oversight of big business and management policies and practices toward to their employees. click here for a full list of guilds and unions

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