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Respect Yourself:
Report of National Executive Director
Kim Roberts Hedgpeth
To the AFTRA 70th Anniversary
National Convention
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Click here to hear the audio version>>

The one thing we do know is, that in just the short span of time between AFTRA’s 60th and 70th Anniversaries, the world in which AFTRA members try to make a living and carve out careers has fundamentally and irreversibly changed. Our world now presents serious challenges for maintaining and enhancing union standards, but it also has opened opportunities for AFTRA members to grow their power in ways not previously imagined. 

In the context of today’s rapidly changing environment, the work that the members of this union and the staff that supports them have accomplished since 2005 is impressive. From successfully negotiating well over 100 broadcast contracts in the past two years, to increasing AFTRA’s profile in the Interactive community, to waging public policy campaigns such as the effort which added Connecticut to the list of states where insidious non-compete clauses are not tolerated, to developing the Independent Touring and Independent Artist Agreements for our recording artists ---  AFTRA members are taking their first steps in adapting to an environment more complex, challenging and exciting than at any other time in this union’s history. 

When contemplating the written report on the negotiations, contract enforcement, public policy, outreach activities  and other initiatives AFTRA has undertaken since 2005, keep in mind that it was also just two years ago that the convention delegates and the national board approved internal changes to make your union more fiscally and operationally efficient. Your National Board members – representing all categories of work and all parts of the county – have made some hard choices in containing expenses and demanding increased productivity, in order to position AFTRA to meet both the current demands of its members while also simultaneously working to find answers to tough questions that old concepts and old ideas simply cannot address.

Last year, your National Board stepped up by establishing the Electronic Media Agreement, which provides an avenue to negotiate union covered employment in emerging media where rigid approaches developed in a prior age may not make sense.   The dozen or so agreements that have been negotiated in the past year are again small first steps in the long march to find the right contract structure -- or structures -- that will ensure good union standards and benefits in a future that has not yet been fully defined…your union had to think out of the box, and your elected leadership had to have the kind of vision and courage to support the creative thinking necessary to expand the reach of union coverage in an increasingly non-union environment.

These are only examples of new efforts, out of many, that overlay the traditional work your union must continue to pursue.  It has not been easy – there’s more work than ever before, and not enough resources with which to do it.  And yet, somehow, your union moves forward.  Despite the fact that at a time when the workload of your union has increased and become more complex, and staff at both local and national levels in the union are stretched thinner, it does not go without notice that as compared to the $12.9 Million dollars in annual claims reported for fiscal year 2005; in fiscal year ending 2007, your local and national staff have recovered over $14.2 million dollars on behalf of AFTRA members. 

During the past two years, your union has turned around a slide in membership that began at the turn of the century, resulting from our nation’s economic downturn and the residual effects of the 2000 strike.  Active organizing and legislative efforts designed to keep work both union and made in America, combined with the growth of program formats such as reality, variety, contests as well as AFTRA’s original area of dramatic programming, has caused your union to grow.  The paid up in good standing count has risen from over 57,400 in 2005 to more than 59,700 members as of May 1 of this year.  This growth, in combination with the work of increasing operational efficiency, allowed your union to end the 2006 fiscal year $2 Million ahead of original projections, and in the recently concluded 2007 fiscal year, more than $3 Million dollars ahead of original projections.

As you all know, one of our challenges following the 2005 convention was the loss of several experienced local and national executives.  We’ve had to rebuild, but not just by filling empty positions. We’ve also had to restructure our work and ask existing employees to take onto themselves responsibilities intended for two, and sometimes three, people…These men and women have done a lot of work on your behalf.  But they, and you, have much, much more to do. 

In the next 18 months, AFTRA will have to negotiate eight major contracts – one of which, the Sound Recordings Code, is already in progress.  The issues in the current Sound Code negotiations herald the issues that will likely present themselves in most, if not all, of the upcoming negotiations.  First, the issue of health and retirement contributions, which we must continue to make a priority in every negotiation until and unless the health care crisis in this country is solved.  And second, but certainly just as important, the question of appropriate compensation structures for the use of performers’ work on new areas such as internet-based and wireless transmissions, and the various forms of multicasting, downloads, subscriptions and streaming that new technologies offer.  In some of these upcoming negotiations, the fundamental issue of jurisdiction over these technologies must be resolved - because it doesn’t matter if you have the best contract in the world, if it only applies to outmoded technology or is used only by a handful of producers in the industry.

And of course, if you have been keeping up with the news articles from Hollywood during the past week, looming large is the question of whether a work stoppage or a lockout, de facto or otherwise, will be precipitated by the upcoming respective negotiations with the producers and networks involving Writers Guild, DGA, AFTRA and/or SAG between now and July first. 

If all of that weren’t enough to keep us totally occupied, we must move from talking about organizing, to doing it.  Because organizing and collective bargaining are inextricably linked: You don’t negotiate better contracts because you have the smartest negotiators on the planet; you negotiate better contracts if you have high union density in a given sector, which reduces the non-union competition your signatory employers compete against.  And when bargaining against a single employer, you have greater opportunity to negotiate better contracts if you have broad coverage that spans across different parts of a large corporation’s businesses, so you can apply multiple points of pressure on that employer and force it to make an acceptable deal. And that last point is the key to AFTRA’s untapped, and too often forgotten, potential for its membership.

The challenge, and the opportunity, for AFTRA is to move organizing from a concept to action, and to arm every member leader and staff member with the tools necessary to be able to answer for each rank and file member, or potential member, they meet, two very simple questions:  “Why union?” and “Why this union?”...

…And in talking recently with Roberta about the great potential we see for AFTRA members future, and some of the internal issues we must overcome in order to realize that potential, I was reminded of something my best friend said to me many years ago…. which I try never to forget. She said:  “Remember: First, you must respect yourself.  Because if you aren’t the first one to respect yourself, no one else will follow.”

…Listening to the stirring remarks of your National President yesterday gives every member here a reason to be proud.  Each member in this room has every reason to be confident in discharging his or her responsibility as an AFTRA leader – a union leader – to deliver a clear message that being an artist and a professional in the entertainment and media industries, however they may evolve, is absolutely consistent with being part of the larger labor union movement.  You have every reason to be confident, in looking at the steps already taken, that your union has the potential to move organizing, and build union density in our industries, to bring the best wages and benefits to as many American performers as possible.

And…sometimes there’s fear and doubt about one’s ability to challenge the rich and the powerful or confront the nay-sayers wherever they may be.  And all too often, we worry more about spin and the war of words, than we do about the real battle before us.  What one person might call a concession, another might call creative and visionary organizing.   And while one can perhaps argue about different approaches to confronting the challenge of organizing on scale, there should be no question in anyone’s mind about who the real enemy is and where the real fight is.  The greatest threat to performers’ and broadcasters’ ability to control their wages, their terms of employment and their careers, is the widening landscape of non-union production. 

But while others may choose to spend time arguing over how to fight the battle, the clear-minded union understands that, in the war to protect the integrity of the union landscape, just as in any war, the first and primary objective is to seize the non-union territory and make it your own, so you can first control it, and then build upon it.

In a world where technology is changing how members work and how they are paid, it is the union which has a culture of managing and adapting to change; it is the union with an ability to embrace good ideas regardless of whether they emerge from Los Angeles, New York, Seattle or Peoria -- or from other parts of the labor movement for that matter; it is the union that can follow a focused path while maintaining its core principles of diversity and inclusiveness for all members; it is that union – AFTRA – which has the potential to emerge stronger from the maelstrom of new technology, shifting business models and globalization which now buffets our industries.

In a world where companies like Disney or Viacom produce content for free television, cable, internet, wireless, sound recordings and radio, which union has the better ability to leverage those employers and negotiate better contracts for its members?  The union which only covers radio? Or which can only affect television? Or which only covers sound recordings?  It’s the union which understands the potential power it holds in representing workers across all those sectors and can combine that power for the greater good of all. 

In a world where yesterday’s newsroom production assistant is today’s morning anchor and tomorrow’s talk show host; where a performer can go from stand-up comedian to a voice-over performer to a dramatic actor to the star of “Deal or No Deal”, the union with the potential to provide such performers with continuous protection across all of the types of work they will hold throughout the course of their careers, is the only rational choice.

Now you already knew that.  AFTRA members knew it in 1999 when they voted for the first merger.  They understood it in 2003 when they voted for it again.  But in focusing so much on merging with someone else over the past ten years, correct though that may have been, AFTRA began to forget a simple truth -– that in the post-consolidation, new technology world in which we now live --- AFTRA already is the merged union for the 21st century.

The vision that your President outlined in her inspiring remarks yesterday spoke not so much to what has been done, but about the potential within your union to organize the unorganized; to ensure that working performers and broadcasters have opportunities in this country for decent union rates and conditions throughout their working lives, and most important, to give AFTRA members a voice at work.  But she is not the only one who sees that potential. 

Your colleagues in the labor movement see and respect your potential.  Those among your employers who would like to break the collective power of working people in our industries see and respect your potential, and pray you don’t ever figure out how to use it.  The question that must be answered here and now is whether, within ourselves, we not only can see that potential, but respect it, understand it, own it, commit to it, and move it forward to empower the members of today and tomorrow…If in this hall, in this moment in the history of your union, you take the courageous step forward to show the labor movement, the employers and the AFTRA members of today and tomorrow that you respect yourselves – your union – first; all the rest will assuredly follow. 

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