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Shelby Scott AFTRA National Vice President, Boston

June Flash: A Message from AFTRA National VP Shelby Scott

Posted May 31, 2010

Dear AFTRA Member, 

Happy Memorial Day! 

Today, we join Americans everywhere to commemorate the men and women who have given service to our nation in the various branches of the United States Armed Forces. AFTRA members salute those who are answering the call to duty both here at home and abroad, and honor the memories of the men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. I encourage all AFTRA members to participate in your local Memorial Day activities to pay tribute to those who have given so much to keep our nation safe.

We all face a myriad of challenges as we strive to make a living in today’s economy and the competitive entertainment and news media industries. I’ve been fortunate to have had a stable career as a broadcast TV journalist, and understand firsthand the issues and challenges that newspersons face working in that competitive field. But I was also fortunate to serve as National President of AFTRA, as well as in my current role as a National Vice President, which provided me the opportunity to listen, learn and understand the issues facing all the professionals in our union: actors, singers, dancers, disc jockeys, stunt  persons and all the other artists working in the various segments of the entertainment and media industries.

Indeed, many of my fellow AFTRA members who may practice a different art or craft than mine are working or have worked for the same corporate employer that I did, CBS. My service as a National Officer representing all AFTRA members has shown me that there are many more things AFTRA members have in common than what separates us.

As such, I keenly understand the challenges faced by our members who find it increasingly difficult to qualify for health and retirement benefits. This problem is serious but, unfortunately, it is not new. This has always been one of the challenges of working in these industries, especially for those performers who are members of more than one union and who work across a variety of media generating earnings under different contracts and plans.

Further, broadcast journalists are finding that there are fewer “staff” jobs at broadcast operations that provide the traditional benefits most full-time workers have historically enjoyed. The health care and pension eligibility challenge is therefore not just an actors’ issue, but is a growing issue for broadcasters as TV radio stations and networks eliminate “staff” jobs, and replace them with “freelance” or “per diem” positions – same job but with less pay, fewer benefits and less security.

The dilemma that confronts members who work under multiple contracts in various jurisdictions has existed for decades for performers of all types in all parts of the country. For example, the singer who both pulls together earnings through session work in film scores, radio jingles and sound recordings also may occasionally perform acting work in a scripted program. The voiceover artist who pieces together a living as a part-time radio personality and/or promo announcer may also work in commercials, videogames and film trailers. There are even some newspersons I know who narrate audiobooks and, like recording artists, may appear in theatrical films or scripted television programs.

While not new, the challenges have accelerated in recent years due to a number of factors, including the migration of work opportunities around the nation, massive shifts in technology, displacement of traditional programming and delivery systems with new forms of entertainment and news and, of course, salary compression resulting from corporate cutbacks on talent costs. All these factors are placing a downward pressure on our members working in all crafts across all sectors. 

There is also the problem facing performers in large and small markets alike resulting from the growth of non-union production in areas that previously provided our members with opportunities to earn union-covered income. These include commercials and non-broadcast videos, news and non-scripted entertainment in cable, as well as areas that continue to have limited union density, such as scripted digital media, video games and audiobooks.

Challenges notwithstanding, these are times of opportunity for AFTRA members. The entertainment and news media industries are changing faster than almost any other industry. Each day, we learn about a new technology or service that promises to change the way we interact with the world. Virtually everywhere you turn – television, radio, CDs, iTunes, Sirius, Crackle, your cell phone and Web sites galore – AFTRA members are seen or heard, entertaining us, enriching our culture and shaping our understanding of the world.

These new opportunities mean that we all must work as AFTRA members to organize internally and build strength within and among members, so we can work even harder at organizing externally and ensure that all of this work is available to union members under strong union contracts

As I think about my service as the Union Chair of the AFTRA Health & Retirement Funds, I understand that as an individual AFTRA member, our union’s organizing efforts are the most important activities in which members can be engaged. The strength of the AFTRA H&R Funds depends on many factors: good management, a smart investment strategy, a hard-working, knowledgeable and trustworthy Board of Trustees, all of which AFTRA H&R and its participants currently enjoy. Of course, a growing economy helps, too, but what is absolutely critical is for AFTRA members to be working under strong AFTRA contracts with the best employer contributions rates possible.

The diversity of AFTRA’s contracts give members the greatest possible range of opportunities to work under a union contract whenever and wherever they work and to have those earnings credited toward securing vital health and pension benefits that are increasingly important during these challenging times. Organizing these diverse and evolving areas, as well as traditional media, is an important part of keeping those opportunities a reality for AFTRA members. The change of pace in the media and entertainment industries is fast, employment insecure and the need for aggressive organizing is urgent.

At the AFTRA H&R Funds, the Trustees are working hard to manage the challenges that our current economy and the cost of health care placed on the Funds, so that we can provide coverage and benefits to as many members as possible. The Trustees strive to keep eligibility thresholds for both health and pension coverage as accessible as possible within the bounds of costs and the economy. The Trustees have recently made changes to expedite eligibility for family plan coverage for actors signed as series regulars, conceptually similar to how the Funds has historically addressed this issue for full-time staff at broadcast stations.

The Funds’ staff continues to work hard with the union on the vexing challenge of locating and getting information to all record label roster artists, who are guaranteed individual AFTRA Health Plan coverage by virtue of special provisions AFTRA has negotiated in the Sound Recordings Code. No matter what category or sector an AFTRA member works in, the challenges of health insurance and security affect us all.

In closing, as member of the Boston Local who spends much of the year out-of-state, I’ve made sure that AFTRA has my current, actual contact information so my union can get in touch with me when they need me. As our union increases its communications to members on organizing issues, contract campaigns and other critically important issues affecting us all, you can do your part by making sure AFTRA has your up-to-date contact information. Keep your e-mail current with the union, and make sure the union has your real address – not a post office box where time sensitive mail might languish. This way, as our union’s organizing work continues, you stay informed and your voice can be heard. It’s a small step, but one we can all take in being part of serving our collective future.

In solidarity,

Shelby Scott
AFTRA National Vice President
Union Chair, AFTRA H&R Trustees
Past AFTRA National President 

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