IT'S A LOCKED OPPRESSION
written by Andrea Calabrese
Santa Monica College
"OUCH! What the hell did that guy just do to me?" cried Cindy. On November 29, 2006 at Cal State Fullerton, she was unexpectedly grabbed on her left side and put into a headlock. Suddenly, her neck was twisted and her face was red. A principal actor on the Fox production, "The Comebacks" is currently under investigation for the physical assault of a non-union background actor employed by "Sessions" Casting. They were both working on the same set. She was playing a reporter, and he was playing a 6’5" football star, but because she was working as a non-union actor on the set (after working on hundreds of television and film productions) to this day she has not been allowed SAG union actor's rights, insurance, or other benefits and is scrounging on minimum wage. Cindy was left stranded holding the hospital bill.
On another film set in Hollywood, another non-union background actor employed by Central Casting (the casting agency used by almost every major studio in Los Angeles), "Nicole," (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) complains "Jesus Christ! I thought slavery and segregation ended when Martin Luther King Jr. perished! I have been working on this set for 12 hours today and they are putting up signs that say, DO NOT TOUCH on coffee and snacks reserved for SAG actors and technical staff only."
The non-union actor quietly proceeds to the segregated section of the cafeteria and says to another, "Why do they divide us like this? We are doing the same acting work as them. We are all working on the same show together. Why do they treat us like second class citizens?" She continues, "They don’t let us into the Screen Actors Guild so they can abuse their power over us. They hold our SAG union vouchers over our heads and do not let us have them just to get the background actors to bow down to sexual harassment and discrimination."
Turn on the TV. Every day on every television in America, there is a silent injustice going on that not many household audiences realize or understand. Every day, non-union background actors are seen on television entertaining audiences across America. They are the silent ones, without a voice in the background on TV and in the movies, pretending to talk. They are the lives that fill the stands, the people on the dance floor, the populace in the bars, the citizens of the town, and the patrons on the screen working to support the television show making it look cool, like it’s a hip place to be.
Take a closer look. Who and what are those life forms in the background? They are not lifeless mannequins and they are not robots. They are people with lives, emotions, and responsibilities. In reality, Central Casting is being paid millions of dollars by the movie and television studios for the townspeople working on television programming that are seen in the background: the waiters, the pedestrians, the shoppers and the givers of life to the TV. Many are non-union background actors because they are not being allowed to join the actors union, SAG. Many of these actors are skilled workers and have been working on minimum wage for many years with no increase to their wages as their skills develop. On the set, they are treated unfairly by the production companies and many times are segregated from the one or two celebrities because of discrimination via agents that do not want to represent them--even though the law (labor code 1700.4) states that every artist in the State of California must "procure work through a Talent Agency." It is difficult to imagine that entertainment industry leaders and celebrities find it acceptable to pay non-union actors (their very own supporting actors) minimum wage because the acting skills they hold and have worked to acquire do not qualify as quality attributes of a skilled trade.
Television would be lifeless if the principal actors were the only people in the town, and on the screen. By taking a closer look at these "extra" artists, many of whom have been denied representation because there are not enough talent agents to handle the demand, we find that the lack of 'artist's own rights' incorporates all sorts of problems that these oppressed non-union background actors are dealing with on a daily basis: low wages, no benefits, no residuals, sexual harassment and discrimination to name a few. With no extras union available to assist non-union background actors into the Screen Actors Guild, the real question is: Where is the money going that is allocated to pay the townspeople in television programming?
At almost 400 movies produced in America each year and over 100 million dollar profits from each film--after cinema sales, Internet sales, DVD sales, cable sales, satellite sales and pay-per-view profits off of each movie (400 times 100 million dollars each year), there is no damn reason why the background actors that work on these productions should have to be sleeping in tents on the sidewalks, going to the sets with sickness making everyone who doesn't have a private trailer sick and over 80,000 homeless people in the City of Los Angeles, many of whom are homeless because they've been forced to work as a non-union actor on these multi-million dollar productions. The fact of the matter is that if these studio workers/non-union background actors were paid proportionate wages to the few celebrity contracts written to benefit the agent's cut, the City of Los Angeles would not currently have the highest levels of poverty in the country.
Besides the lack of representation for non-union background actors, there also seems to be a few misunderstandings in the matter of how these actors should earn their way into the Screen Actors Guild on their own. SAG officials have expressed that any actor (employed by an agency, such as Central Casting) has the right to work on a SAG union voucher whether they are union or not. According to Terry Becherer, a contracts specialist at SAG, non-union "actors don't have to be a SAG member to be hired on a SAG union voucher." The contradiction arises because the casting agency (Central) is telling the non-union actors that non-union actors are not allowed to work on SAG union vouchers unless they are SAG members.
One solution to solving this "locked oppression" could be to create a new department or new job position at the SAG headquarters in Los Angeles, such as "Official Voucher Person" available to assist non-union actors if they are having problems getting their SAG union vouchers because they are trying to be SAG members, working as non-union actors at Central Casting or other agency.
If this type of assistance was made available to non-union actors, it would help to minimize the extreme and unfair poverty levels in the City of Los Angeles, help to reduce the homeless crisis, and greatly improve the quality of life for Los Angeles families and communities everywhere. What kind of life is someone to have that works 20 years at minimum wage with no increase to their wages as their skills are developed?
According to "Nicole," who says the production assistants at Central Casting "take advantage of the non-union actors and use their power to get what they want out of them" (ranging from bribery to sexual favors in exchange for SAG union vouchers) before letting them have a SAG union voucher. "The entertainment industry would be lifeless without background actors," she says. "If there was no movement, no life, no customers, no pedestrians, no fans and no supporting actors, the television would be boring and dull. If people turned on their television sets and only saw the principal actors and no people in the background, the show would be dull and lifeless. The audience would question the TV shows' legitimacy and say, 'Where are all the townspeople? Is this a real show?'"
Cindy has worked almost 1,000 days as a non-union actor and only has one SAG union voucher. She has an excellent reputation, but unfortunately has been given many excuses for why she is not being allowed to have a SAG union voucher. For example, she has been told by the production company on the set that they "would be fined $1,000" if they let her work on a SAG union voucher, which has been proven to be an illegitimate excuse by a SAG representative. Other excuses have included: Central Casting didn't have any SAG vouchers to give out to non-union actors that day; they didn't have the power to hire a non-union actor on a SAG voucher; the "P.A." didn't have the power to give out SAG union vouchers; or the production company had already met their quota for the day. Many times when non-union actors arrive on a set, they are faced with signs put up by the production companies that say: "DO NOT ASK FOR SAG UNION VOUCHERS."
Other non-union actors are complaining because they are being asked to do sexual favors in exchange for SAG vouchers. Some are being asked to wait until the show has wrapped to see if there will be any time left in exchange for SAG union vouchers and others are even being told that they would be given SAG union vouchers if they are willing to go to hotel rooms after the shoot.
If what children are watching on television is such an important issue, then isn’t it time for our leaders to realize that if what our children are watching on TV has any relevance at all, then isn’t it important to pay the people on television more than minimum wage? Paying the non-union background actors more than the minimum wage (Such as, an increase of five cents per day of work on each television show or movie set. Since they do not currently receive any annual or biannual relief from basic minimum wage after several years of working on productions—compared to 22 million per year for a few agent contracts to benefit five percent of the population of actors in Los Angeles—a five cent increase per day of work for over 90 percent of the entire acting community wouldn’t be very much.) would allow the presentation for television programming to be of higher quality.
How can anyone expect to deliver quality television programming for the children of every television household when the actors are suffering on minimum wages? After all, children reflect what they see. Isn't it important to be concerned about what they are watching on TV?