The Netcode is a collective bargaining agreement covering “dramas in first-run syndication, morning news shows, talk shows, serials (soap operas), variety, reality, contest, sports and promotional announcements.” These programs appear on major networks like FOX, ABC, CBS, NBC, et al.
The term of the newly ratified contract was retroactive to July 1, 2018, and runs three years through June 30, 2021.
A number of stand-ins work under the Netcode on many of these programs. Below are some observations and opinions about the ratification of this major union contract affecting SAG-AFTRA members and namely stand-ins.
How Many SAG-AFTRA Members Voted
Of its approximately 160,000 members, SAG-AFTRA explained in its press release that it mailed ballots on the Netcode referendum to approximately 142,000 SAG-AFTRA members. It announced that 93% voted “in favor of the new contract.”
The union did not release how many of its members voted on the contract. This important obfuscation of information was the same practice in 2015 when SAG-AFTRA members ratified the 2014 Netcode.
Back then, the union did not release the number of members who voted, only that approximately 132,000 members were mailed ballots, and that 96.5% voted in favor of the proposed contract.
Stand-In Gains under the 2018 Netcode
What stand-ins gained under this updated contract included:
- $1 annual increases in the hourly rates for stand-in work
- the requirement that stand-ins be advised of their minimum call at the time of engagement
New Stand-In Rates under the 2018 Netcode
For stand-in work retroactive to July 1, 2018, the new rate is $27/hour. Starting July 1, 2019, that rate increases to $28/hour. For the final year of the contract, starting July 1, 2020, that rate increases to $29/hour.
If you worked as a stand-in on a Netcode job at $26/hour on July 1, 2018, through August 26, 2018, you should expect to receive a check to make up the difference created by the new rate of $27/hour.
Arguably, most stand-ins under this contract have a two-hour minimum — meaning a stand-in may leave work in the first year of the contract with a paycheck of merely $54.
Some stand-in jobs under this contract have just a one-hour minimum, equating to a paycheck of just $27 in the first year of this contract.
Other stand-ins have a three-hour or five-hour minimum depending on the program being produced.
Stand-Ins on Netcode Dramatic Programs
The above rates apply to stand-in work on non-dramatic or daytime serials (soap operas). On dramatic programs produced under the Netcode, stand-ins have a daily rate rather than a hourly rate.
Most dramatic programs fall under SAG-AFTRA’s Television Agreement, a wholly different contract than the Netcode that covers most dramatic television. Therefore, it is unclear how many stand-ins actually work on dramatic programs under the Netcode and receive a daily rate.
While it is currently unclear what the rate for stand-ins on dramatic programs will be, the proposed contract seemed to include that job position under a header of “General Wage Increases,” suggesting a rate increase of 2.5% in the first year for these stand-ins.
In the second and third years, stand-ins will then receive 3% increases — that is, if SAG-AFTRA doesn’t opt to trade those wage increases instead for 2.5% wage increases, plus 0.5% increases to the AFTRA Retirement Fund.
This means that for July 1, 2018, stand-ins on dramatic programs under the Netcode will make approximately $187.58 for 8 hours. For the second year, the rate will increase to $193.20 (3% raise) or $192.26 (2.5% raise), depending on what SAG-AFTRA decides it wants to do with respect to wage increases versus contributions to the AFTRA Retirement Fund.
The rate for stand-ins on dramatic programs under the Netcode in the third year is unclear given the lack of clarity on the wage increases in the second year.
All in all, SAG-AFTRA’s wage increases for stand-ins on dramatic programs under the Netcode are not as decisive as the union promotes in its press release. Instead, those wage increases are conditional.
SAG-AFTRA negotiated a similar arrangement in its 2017 negotiations for its Television Agreement. In the second year of that contract, the union opted to revoke a 3% increase in wages for stand-ins, instead quietly electing a 2.5% increase plus a 0.5% increase in contributions to its benefit plans. We covered that quiet choice in a prior post on Stand-In Central.
The Pain of 2018’s Netcode Ratification
As outlined earlier this year in this post, and further explained in this post, this post, and this post, Stand-In Central strongly recommended voting No in order to prevent the ratification of this proposed contract, and in order to initiate further negotiation for better gains for stand-ins. The reasoning was that:
- $1 annual increases for stand-ins were more or less “pattern” gains, not a response to wage demands from stand-ins during the Wages & Working Conditions Committee process
- The proposal did not address or change the continued rule of permitting a two-hour minimum for most stand-ins, meaning many stand-ins could walk away with as little as $54 on a job under this proposal
- The wording of the new requirement to inform stand-ins of their minimum calls lacked clarity on who is responsible for providing that information to stand-ins, and what penalty stand-ins would receive in the event this part of the proposed contract was violated
There were other issues around the Netcode proposal outside stand-in rates. Namely, background actors would make minimum wage in New York City and Los Angeles, where most of the Netcode work is concentrated. Also, the union ended negotiations in early June before the contract expired, suggesting that the union could have fought longer and harder for its members.
The pain of Netcode ratification is that stand-ins are forced to accept the minimum rates outlined in the ratified proposal. It feels as if the 93% of SAG-AFTRA members who voted in favor of the Netcode — and the SAG-AFTRA board members who voted to approve the Netcode proposal to begin with — are cruelly disinterested in the wages and working conditions of stand-ins and are proactively interested in ensuring continued economic disadvantages for them.
Taking a Netcode stand-in job is an economic gamble because how long you will work is unclear when you are booked, so your take-home pay is unclear. A take-home pay of $54 for a union professional, working among a crew of other union professionals with better wages, is obscene. $54 is less than a background actor earns under this contract. And this will continue to be the predicament for stand-ins for the next three years — as a result of Netcode’s ratification by fellow SAG-AFTRA members.
The Problems with Pattern Bargaining
Part of the problem with the new rates for stand-ins is pattern bargaining.
Pattern bargaining is the sustained practice within an industry over years of negotiations of management offering, and unions’ accepting, wage increases at a consistent and predictable rate.
Within the entertainment industry, 3% wage increases in minimum rates are a common find from year to year. That pattern has started to break down in recent years, with management and unions trading wage increases for union pension funding — meaning union wage increases of lower than the patterned 3%.
Netcode stand-ins in recent memory usually received pattern wage increases of $1 per hour per year or so, rather than something more sizable. Despite that pattern shift, stand-ins under the Netcode have continued to seek better gains than their patterned increases — such as in the number of minimum hours. But those gains have been elusive achievements.
Stand-ins (and SAG-AFTRA members in general) arguably care more about wages and related compensation than they do about working conditions, given that working conditions have largely been settled long ago in SAG-AFTRA contracts and are rarely in dispute.
Pattern bargaining ends up preserving archaic pay scales for Netcode stand-ins rather than improving their economic situation.
Pattern Bargaining’s Influence on Union Laziness at the Bargaining Table
While pattern bargaining provides predictability in an industry with respect to labor costs, that predictability can equate to laziness at the bargaining table.
If the union is the lazy party, that means they may be surprised during negotiations by non-pattern demands from management, and thus be unprepared to provide thoughtful counteroffers that will placate the real needs of its members. They may also be unprepared in not having strike authorization at the ready from its members in case management does not provide an acceptable offer.
Because of that laziness and being unprepared, the union may have to accept suboptimal or non-economic (non-money) gains, then rely on spin and propaganda in order to sell its gains to members as “remarkable” in order to get its members to ratify the new contract.
Pattern bargaining can also prove problematic if union members’ needs evolve (or devolve) over the long term, especially to the point that the patterned gains rise more slowly than members’ costs of living.
For example, if a union member’s cost of living rises 5% annually, and if gains are patterned at 3% annually, then a 3% gain in wages will not fund that union member’s life without longer hours or additional jobs.
While not exactly that simple (especially in the entertainment industry or under the Netcode, which provides spotty work at a dramatic range of wages for many who work under it), the general lesson seems to apply: The more expensive the union member’s life, the same will be needed in negotiated minimum wages, not less.
How SAG-AFTRA Negotiated Lazily in 2018’s Netcode
SAG-AFTRA has exhibited not just patterned gains (and essentially “laziness” at the bargaining table), but also diminshed economic gains for its members that will likely not fund their lives well where most Netcode work is concentrated: New York City and Los Angeles .
The following wage gains were exactly the same in 2014 as in 2018:
- Increases in contract minimums over a three-year period, including an 8.7-percent overall wage increase to most program fees
- Increases in those wages by 2.5 percent the first year, 3 percent the second year and 3 percent the third year
It is not remarkable or practical to the average SAG-AFTRA worker that the union gained “8.7-percent overall” wage increases.
Instead, it’s more remarkable to the average SAG-AFTRA worker what the annual pay raises will be.
So, the more notable and practical figures are a 2.5% increase in the first year, then 3% increases in the second and third years.
But here is where the economic gains for SAG-AFTRA members are clearly less in 2018 than in 2014. As mentioned above, for the 2018 Netcode, the increases in the second and third years are conditional. That is, SAG-AFTRA can choose, instead of providing its members with 3% wage increases, to give its members 2.5% wage increases and then boost the AFTRA Retirement Fund with contributions of an additional 0.5%.
In other words, SAG-AFTRA did not achieve decisive gains in overall wage increases in 2018, while it did achieve that in 2014. And that lack of a decisive gain means a diminished gain for members — because it creates uncertainty about what members’ wages will be in the second and third years of the 2018 Netcode.
Given the union’s behavior in 2018 on wages under the 2017 Television Agreement, it would come as no shock that a) SAG-AFTRA would choose pension plan funding over wage increases, and b) SAG-AFTRA would make this choice quietly, without publicly acknowledging this disappointing choice in lower wage increases to its members.
Therefore, it could come as no shock if SAG-AFTRA members only get 2.5% wage increases in the second and third years of the 2018 Netcode, rather than 3% wage increases seen in the second and third years of the 2014 Netcode.
Other Diminished Gains
As for other diminished gains, those SAG-AFTRA members in soap operas saw smaller percentage increases in 2018 than in 2014. Compare 2014’s summary language —
A 7.2-percent overall wage increase for serial (soap opera) performers, implemented through increases of 2 percent the first year, 2.5 percent the second year and 2.5 percent the third year
— with 2018’s summary language —
A 4.1-percent overall wage increase for daytime serial performers, implemented through increases of 1 percent the first year, 1.5 percent the second year and 1.5 percent the third year
— and no matter where you look, you see diminished gains for soap opera performers in 2018. While a 2% gain is a relatively small gain, a 1% gain is probably laughable to most soap opera performers who have been led to believe in the “strength” of SAG-AFTRA.
Is SAG-AFTRA as “Strong” as It Tells Its Members?
Unless the union was somehow tricked by management in the bargaining process, for the most part management and SAG-AFTRA made equal trades in order to arrive at the summary Netcode provided to members for ratification.
In theory, the management (major networks) was offering to give union members x amount of money, and the union chose how it wanted to use that amount of money as it worked toward an agreement with management.
In all likelihood, the union looked at the problems it had to solve, then looked how to divvy that money up to help solve those problems. Given decreasing funding percentages of the AFTRA Retirement Fund, the trade of wage increases for pension plan contributions is one example of how the union tried to solve a problem it had. Smaller wage increases for higher-paying jobs and boosts in rates for lower-paying jobs is a “Robin Hood” approach to solving some pay issues some SAG-AFTRA members have — which will probably upset no economically disadvantaged member who feels generally overlooked in union negotiations and underpaid by contracts.
However, bargaining strength can have an influence in negotiations, meaning a union with a lot of bargaining strength may be able to achieve better (economic) gains for its members rather than accepting equal trades all of the time.
Back in 2012, many proponents of merging SAG and AFTRA touted the “strength” their merger would provide their members. Presumably, this meant the merged union would be able to stand up against producers looking to bully SAG-AFTRA into lower wages and lesser contract terms. Upon the merger of SAG and AFTRA, SAG-AFTRA co-president Ken Howard resolutely announced in a union press release: “Together we are stronger.”
So the question is — and continues to be — whether SAG-AFTRA is a strong negotiator at the bargaining table.
No, SAG-AFTRA Is Not as “Strong” as It Tells Its Members
Given its patterned increases as well as diminished economic gains in the recent Netcode negotiations, SAG-AFTRA failed to show its advertised “strength” in 2018’s Netcode negotiations.
Rather, the union seemed to exhibit its weakness in negotiating with the major networks, showing no largescale or radical economic gains for SAG-AFTRA members in the contract its members ratified.
Furthermore, SAG-AFTRA folded negotiations on June 9, 2018, three weeks before the Netcode was set to expire on June 30, 2018.
That early conclusion to negotiations suggests SAG-AFTRA did not bargain long or hard enough for its members, who might have benefitted economically from a protracted negotiation down to the wire or past the deadline.
The union negotiators might also have benefitted from having a strike authorization from members in their pocket, in order to threaten a work stoppage in case of no agreement with the networks. SAG-AFTRA sought a strike authorization in 2017’s negotiations on its Television Agreement, but that request for authorization was very late in negotiations and read as a desperate move by the union in talks they were presumably losing.
Longer, harder pressure on management along with the weapon of strike authorization could have influenced better economic gains for SAG-AFTRA members than what was achieved so early before the expiry of the Netcode. In such a case, SAG-AFTRA would have at least appeared “strong.”
For Whom Does SAG-AFTRA Work?
In actuality, one must wonder from these negotiations whether SAG-AFTRA is more interested in preserving the interests of the major networks than it is in exercising its advertised “strength.” Were it more for its members than for the major networks, the union presumably would have strong-armed more remarkable economic gains at the bargaining table, and delivered them decisively to SAG-AFTRA members rather than conditionally.
Another way to see for whom SAG-AFTRA works would be to ask yourself, “What would SAG-AFTRA look like were it obviously working more in the interests of SAG-AFTRA members than the major networks?”
- Would SAG-AFTRA have bargained up to the expiration of the Netcode contract?
- Would it have readied a strike authorization?
- Would it have gained better than minimum wage for background actors?
- Would it have listened to stand-ins who for years have told it that a two-hour minimum needs to be improved?
- Would it have muscled better wage increases than 2.5% and conditional 3% increases?
- Would it be open and honest with members about the demands of funding the AFTRA Retirement Fund?
Also, what would a SAG-AFTRA press release and ballot look like if the union was in the position to value its members’ economic interests over the economic interests of the wealthy major networks?
As one answer, SAG-AFTRA would be louder and prouder of its gains, which would be more outsized than in the prior years. It might still tell members to “Vote Yes” (as so many postcards encouraged members to do in 2018), but a yes vote might not be as hard of a sell given how remarkable those gains would be to members upon seeing them in their referendum packages.
While the above gains are examples of diminished gains, surely there were improved gains in other parts of the proposed Netcode. Whether they were “substantial” or “significant” depends a bit on whether you work in those jobs.
At Stand-In Central, we primarily look at union contracts through the lens of stand-ins, and we are unhappy with how stand-ins were rewarded in the 2018 negotiations. We believe SAG-AFTRA could have done much better, but they didn’t, potentially showing their weakness as a labor union, and potentially showing more interest in the major networks than its own members.
What are your thoughts on the ratification of SAG-AFTRA’s 2018 Network Television Agreement? Share your opinions in the comments section below!