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Guide to the Screen Actors Guild, New York Branch Records WAG.178

Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive
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Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives

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This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on June 22, 2018
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Biographical / Historical

History of the Screen Actors Guild

The creation of the Screen Actors' Guild (SAG) in 1933 was the first successful attempt to establish a motion picture actors' union which was independent of the Hollywood studios and producers. From 1920 to 1929, the Actors' Equity Association, an affiliate of the Associated Actors and Artistes of America (4A's) and the American Federation of Labor, made continuous efforts to organize Hollywood actors, but encountered indifference on the part of actors and resistance from the producers. In 1927, a cut in non—union salaries generated keener interest in Equity, but Equity was undercut by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which was created by producers to represent their employees. The Academy protested the salary reduction, and producers chose to bargain with the Academy rather than with Equity. From 1927 to 1933, the Academy functioned as the chief bargaining agent for screen actors. The Screen Actors' Guild was founded as a result of actor disaffection with the Academy. In March 1933, the Academy failed to protest drastic outs in the salaries of studio and freelance actors. Moreover, it approved the National Recovery Administration's code for the film industry, which was written by producers and included salary control and agency licensing provisions which the actors resented. SAG originated when six actors, meeting secretly in the home of Kenneth Thomson, decided to form a self governing union, fully independent of the Hollywood producers. Incorporated in Sacramento, California, on June 30, 1933, SAG won its first victory when its president, Eddie Cantor, persuaded Franklin D. Roosevelt to suspend the salary control and agency licensing provisions. This triumph gave SAG instant clout and fostered rapid expansion of its membership.

When SAG incorporated in 1933, Actors' Equity still had official AFL jurisdiction over motion picture actors. On November 13, 1934, Equity relinquished its jurisdiction on the condition that it be transferred to SAG. ln 1935, SAG affiliated with 4A's and the AFL. Motion picture producers refused to recognize SAG as an official bargaining unit until 1937, when 98 percent of SAG's 5,053 members voted to strike for recognition, thus forcing the producers to acknowledge SAG and accept guild shops. In 1937, thirteen producers signed the first Guild contract, which guaranteed minimum wages, 12 hour breaks between calls, and arbitration of future disputes.

History of the New York Branch

In 1938, the Screen Actors' Guild opened its first branch office in New York City. When it was chartered in 1939, the 21 member New York Advisory Council had no representatives on the National Board of Directors. Its chief function was the administration of local union matters, such as arbitration of disputes, approval of contracts, and member relations. Although it could make recommendations to the Board of Directors, the New York Council had little influence on the governance of the national organization until New York's prominence in the growing television industry and in particular, television commercials, provided the Council with the clout needed to gain representation on the Board.

In 1953-1954, the New York Advisory Council became the New York Council, and the number of Council members increased from 21 to 27, Council members were elected by "voting members" of the New York Branch, namely those persons who had been members of SAG for two years or longer. The two year prerequisite for voting was reduced to one year in April 1954 to fit SAG's policy of free membership interchange with affiliates of the 4A's. If not reelected, the president of the Council automatically stayed on as a member for one year after his term expired. The Council held two regular meetings per month, except in the summer when they met once per month.

In May 1958, the New York Council charged its Executive Committee with the duty of exploring "ways and means of bringing the members of the Guild throughout the country into...the national activities of the Guild." In March 1959, the National Board and the New York Council agreed that nine New York representatives to the National Board would be appointed. The New York representation to the Board consisted of the president and eight members of the Council. Initially, the New York Directors were elected by the Council, rather than by the general membership.

Beginning in March 1964, the New York Branch continued to reorganize its governing body. The Council proposed that its duties be absorbed by the New York Section of the National Board of Directors which would become the sole governing board for New York SAG. At the National Board's annual meeting in November 1964, New York further proposed that its representation be increased to 24, based on proportional representation. The national executives' counter—proposal called for 19 New York representatives and the National 4th Vice President would automatically be from New York. ln June 1965, the National Board approved the elimination of the New York Council and the organization of a New York Section with 19 New York National Board members. On November 8, 1965, the New York Section, now renamed the New York Directors of the National Board, approved a by-law dissolving the New York Council and enlarging the quorum of New York Directors to 20. That same day the New York Council held its final meeting.

The New York Council and the New York Directors were headed by eight officers: the President, four Vice Presidents, the Executive Secretary, the Treasurer and the Recording Secretary. Together, the officers constituted the Executive Committee which was concerned with the financial affairs and budget of the branch, its administrative organization and procedures, and the operation of its office and its personnel policies. Moreover, it was empowered to approve signatories of Guild contracts in the New York region; make recommendations to the New York Board in regard to formulation, revision, and enforcement (or waiver) of SAG by-laws, policies and procedures; authorize delegates (usually the Executive Secretary or President) to represent New York SAG at non-SAG conferences and functions, such as the AFL-CIO National Conference. The Executive Committee also served as SAG's communications agent, channeling petitions, invitations, grievances and other matters to the Board or to the appropriate committees or officers. It was also the Executive Committee which approved the editing and publication of Reel.

A brief overview of committees of New York SAG gives a clear indication of how its concerns and activities expanded from 1954-1977. ln 1954, New York SAG had only four standing committees: Publications, Procedural Rules, Budget & Finance, and Administrative. A year later, the list had grown slightly to include: Wages & Working Conditions and Membership Study. By 1960, Budget & Finance and Administrative had merged into one committee. Other committees for that year were: Agent Relations, Joint Committee, Membership Attendance, Welfare, Membership Relations, Publications, Committee on Rules and Procedure, and Wages & Working Conditions. ln 1962, in response to pressure from the Committee for the Employment of Negro Performers (which was independent of SAG but included Guild members), SAG created a Committee on Minorities to study and recommend ways through which it could help combat discrimination in the motion picture industry. This seems to be a turning point for New York SAG, as it became increasingly aware of and involved in civil rights and political issues in the 1960s and 1970s.

SAG jurisdiction also seems to have grown during this period, so that by 1977, the list of committees reflected a much broader range of concerns and activities than in 1954. The committees in 1977 were: Agent Relations, Conservatory, Coordinating, Dubbing, Emergency Relief, Ethnic Minorities, Extras Advisory, Film Society, Guild Government Review, Legislative, Leniency, Manhattan Plaza, Membership Relations (with subcommittees: Orientation, Rap, Actor Services, Member Relations), New York Dancers, New York Production, Publication, Replacement, Retail, singers, Wages & Working Conditions (commercial), Women's SAG's Jurisdiction has also expanded so that it now covers all acting work in the motion picture industry, namely theatrical pictures, television entertainment programs, television commercials and industrial educational films Contracts for extras are also negotiated and administered by the New York Branch.