The SAG-AFTRA Commercials Contract is set to expire on March 31, 2019, and, according to Variety, those negotiations are set to begin in “mid-February.”

SAG-AFTRA is ramping up its rhetoric as it goes into negotiations with the Joint Policy Committee — partly by using celebrity SAG-AFTRA members.

On January 31, 2019, SAG-AFTRA released a hostage video an unlisted video on its YouTube channel performed by union member J.K. Simmons, who notably works in the commercial world as the pitchman for Farmer’s Insurance. His SAG-AFTRA video is below:


Here is the transcript of what he says:

Today commercials make up nearly 18 minutes of each hour of primetime television. They’re where many of us get our start, continue to work after we receive awards and notoriety, and build sustainable careers to feed our families and qualify for health insurance. In fact, more members work under our Commercials Contract than any other.

Our union, which is now SAG-AFTRA, was formed in 1933 by the most powerful stars of the day, including James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Gloria Stuart and Boris Karloff. They organized to support each other and to stand up for fellow actors who might be more vulnerable.

We need your help to follow their lead. Together, let’s make sure that our sponsors are increasing commercial opportunities and providing union employment for all of us. Over the last few years, our industry has experienced a decline in union commercial work. When advertisers pick and choose when they want to produce under a union contract, it becomes harder for our brothers and sisters to earn a living, pay their bills, feed their families.

Confirm your sponsors only shoot union. Keeping commercial work under a fair union contract is vital to the health and survival of this community and our union.

So as a proud SAG-AFTRA member, I’m asking you to support our #AdsGoUnion Campaign. Please go to for more information.

Thank you.

Presumably, this copy was written by SAG-AFTRA rather than written and spoken impromptu from the heart by Simmons, who appears to be reading from a teleprompter. So I will speak as if this is SAG-AFTRA’s speech rather than Simmons’s speech:

In trying to seem noble and impassioned, SAG-AFTRA’s posturing about the plights of its members is ingenuine and insulting.

Here’s why.

Comparison of Rates among SAG-AFTRA Contracts

The SAG-AFTRA Commercials Contract is arguably the most lucrative union contract its members can work under. Of note, stand-ins make a minimum of $403.01 for 8 hours of work (their “main” rate on commercials). Compare that rate with the rate stand-ins make on most Television or Theatrical productions, which is currently $199 for 8 hours. That’s a $204 difference in pay for stand-in work that has little to no difference in character. It’s arguably fantastic money to work as a stand-in on most “main” SAG-AFTRA Commercials.

On Network Television Code jobs, stand-ins make shockingly less. Currently, stand-ins on Netcode jobs make $27 per hour, with a two-hour minimum on many jobs. That translates to the possibility of earning just $54 for a day you reserved to work as a union stand-in.  Compare that to the rate of the Commercials stand-in, and there’s a potential difference of $349 for arguably the same work.

Add insult to injury when you compare weekend work for Netcode and Commercial stand-ins. The Commercials Contract mandates double time on the weekend for stand-ins, translating to $806.02 for just walking in the door. Weekend work for Netcode stand-ins has no effect on rate, so the Netcode stand-in working on the weekend faces potentially $54 for the day. That’s a potential difference of $752 for basically the same kind of unionized work!

Are SAG-AFTRA Commercial Rates Inflated … or Maybe Just Right?

Is the rate for stand-ins on SAG-AFTRA Commercials overvalued? When you consider that the work on Commercials, TV/Theatrical productions, and Netcode productions is arguably the same, the range of rates suggests a union that is not in touch with the value of stand-ins. In one contract SAG-AFTRA argues for $806 for stand-ins, but in another contract it thinks stand-ins are only worth about $54 and not even a guaranteed 8-hour day.

Chances are, all Netcode stand-ins value their work as worth more than $54, but the union did not get a more appreciable rate for stand-ins in its 2018 Netcode negotiations, so it’s not clear that the union values the professional services stand-ins offer to a production. So, pricing stand-ins at $403 or even $806 for eight hours on a commercial is a bit hard to swallow, as much as it works against my interest to say so. This raises the question of whether the Commercials Contract as a whole is overvalued. Is union talent priced too high under the Commercials Contract?

But let’s say, no, stand-ins on Commercials are priced just right. This is when the union’s plea to “feed the families” of their members becomes insulting, as it does not consider that stand-ins on other SAG-AFTRA contracts make far less, and they’re obligated to feed their families at those comparatively deflated rates. In fact, many SAG-AFTRA members do feed their families, pay their expenses, and even earn health and pension through stand-in work and a combination of background work and other SAG-AFTRA jobs. If you’re just stubbornly sticking to working under the SAG-AFTRA Commercials Contract, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot.

Why Celebrity Members Help and Insult SAG-AFTRA Members

So, when it comes to having celebrities complain about the devolving advertising industry and that declining union production of commercials is preventing SAG-AFTRA members from building a “sustainable career,” “to earn a living,” to “pay their bills,” and twice saying to feed their families, what level of income do members who work in Commercials believe is necessary to earn a living, pay bills, and feed families?

Do they have to make $500,000 a year from Commercials or otherwise they can’t feed their families? Is $100,000 sufficient? How about $25,000? Were some SAG-AFTRA members spoiled with big payouts from past Commercials work, and now are they vocally upset that they don’t have the same payouts to fund their inflated lifestyles? What about getting other union jobs when Commercials work and residuals checks aren’t coming in as much as they used to?

Furthermore, what about child actors working under the Commercials Contract — do they have to worry about feeding their families, too?

Having celebrity members is an asset for SAG-AFTRA as a labor union, since most labor unions do not have celebrity members, and celebrity members can put public pressure on management in ways that more civilian members alone cannot. But the risk of having celebrity members speak for more civilian members is that they project a narrative of privilege, wealth, and success onto the civilian SAG-AFTRA membership with which these civilian members do not identify and to which levels they do not practically aspire. These celebrity spokespeople can make civilian members seem privileged, desirous of wealth and success, and unaccepting of acceptable living wages that non-actors earn, when these civilian members may labor hard and earn modest to respectable incomes in the entertainment industry without the desire for wealth, acclaim, or privilege that a celebrity member might achieve.

Furthermore, celebrity members can be out of touch with the income realities of, say, stand-ins on Netcode jobs, especially if SAG-AFTRA is providing them the copy to read from the teleprompter. As I just explained, stand-ins on Netcode jobs work for the potential of a $54 paycheck for their day on set. What celebrities trotted out during the Netcode negotiations in June 2018 to fight for more than the comparatively “peanuts” wages union members make when working Netcode jobs? Who can earn a living, pay their bills, and feed their families in New York City and Los Angeles (where a concentration of that stand-in work is) with $54 for a day’s work?

Would J.K. Simmons also release a SAG-AFTRA video expressing the indignity of a two-hour minimum for Netcode stand-ins and the possibility of leaving work with a paycheck of just $54? I presume he would not, because I believe he said what the union wanted him to say, and such a statement would work against SAG-AFTRA’s position that its members are having trouble “feeding their families” exclusively because of a decline in union commercials production. An inability for SAG-AFTRA members to “feed their families” can’t be merely the result of non-union commercial production. That is part of the reason I say SAG-AFTRA’s posturing is ingenuine.

How Spoiled Are SAG-AFTRA Commercial Actors?

It’s not hard to see that SAG-AFTRA members aren’t confined to working under just one contract in order to make their livings and “feed their families.” They can work under a number of union contracts.

If their expenses are so high and their cost of living is so much, the Commercials actor might consider branching out. Just because there is a threat to the Commercials contract in the upcoming negotiations, does not mean that there is a threat to the ability of SAG-AFTRA members earning any income, feeding their families, qualifying for health insurance, or paying their bills. These are emotional pleas made by the union, intended to persuade those who will listen, to support the union’s side and not the Joint Policy Committee, who may have rational explanations for the increase of non-union production and the use of non-union talent.

For members who have worked in Commercials and seen big payouts that aren’t happening as much these days, there’s the potential of working as a union stand-in or even a union background actor on TV/Theatrical productions. That work will not only bring in money, but it will also aid in the eligibility for health insurance and pension. As mentioned earlier, stand-ins on TV/Theatrical productions — an industry Simmons also works in — currently earn $199/8, a rate that many would argue can aid in “earning a living,” “paying bills,” and “feeding families.” Since Simmons also works in that industry, is it possible he is overlooking that SAG-AFTRA members in that industry are not all failing at “feeding their families”?

How SAG-AFTRA Is Complicit in Its Members’ Financial Problems, Part 1: Creating the Low Budget Digital Waiver

Two other points come to mind when SAG-AFTRA makes the ingenuine and insulting claim about the inability to pay bills and feed families.

First is that the union released without member ratification the Low Budget Digital Waiver for commercial productions with smaller budgets. In effect, this waiver made most of the 2016 Commercials Contract’s wages and rates negotiable.

For example, before, a stand-in might have been guaranteed $403.01/8 on even a lower-budget union commercial, but with the release of the Low Budget Digital Waiver, that stand-in rate became potentially negotiable.

And practically speaking, no real “negotiation” ensued when it came to the rate stand-ins would get. Instead, production would mandate what stand-ins would make, meaning that SAG-AFTRA is responsible for undermining its members in cutting a waiver that worked against members’ interests in assuring contract minimum wages, paying their bills, and feeding their families with commercials.

How SAG-AFTRA Is Complicit in Its Members’ Financial Problems, Part 2: Giving Away Simultaneous Streaming Residuals

The second point about the disingenuous and insulting position SAG-AFTRA has about commercials no longer paying members’ bills is the union giveaway of simultaneous streaming residuals in the 2016 Commercials Contract negotiations.

“Simultaneous streaming” is the situation when, for example, a program is on live television and also being broadcast live via an app. Per the 2016 Commercials Contract, commercials played on the television during that time would qualify for residuals, but if those commercials were played, say, via a streaming app, the “simultaneous streaming” of that commercial would not qualify for additional residuals.

However, this giveaway is an example of SAG-AFTRA not fighting for among the most basic terms of the Commercials Contract — that of being paid residuals — i.e., “use” — for all uses of commercials. By giving away simultaneous streaming residuals in 2016, SAG-AFTRA worked against its own contractually spelled-out reasoning for residuals payment for members when their commercials are used in a live stream.

What the Commercials Contract Says about the Reason for Residuals Payment

That contract position is on Page 1 of the 2016 Commercials Contract and reads (underlining mine for emphasis):

Compensation to principal performers in commercials is based both on the services which the principal performer renders in the production of such commercials and on the use which is made of the finished commercial in which the principal performer has rendered services. This dual basis of compensation springs from the unique nature of the services rendered by principal performers in commercials. The Union contended that a principal performer rendering services in a commercial performs, to a great extent, the duties of a demonstrator or salesperson of a particular product or service and as such, tends to be identified with that particular product or service.

The Union also contended that this identification increases proportionately with the continued utilization of a commercial. The Union further contended that advertisers and their agencies seldom approve the employment of a principal performer who has become identified with another product or service, especially if the product or service is competitive. These conditions and practices tend to reduce opportunities for further employment in this field.

The Producer, realizing the singular nature of this kind of service and that the reuse of a commercial may limit or curtail further employment opportunities for the principal performers appearing in the commercial, has agreed to this unique method of compensation.

Translating the above, SAG-AFTRA and the Joint Policy Committee (“Producer”) contractually declared that members should get residuals not just because in commercials they are doing the duty of product demonstrator or salesperson, but also because their work in commercials may be self-limiting in terms of income, because it can potentially bar future employment opportunities. The presumption from this passage is that each use of a commercial is an example of product demonstration or sales, so a residual payment should be paid to the member for each use of a commercial.

The SAG-AFTRA explanation for the giveaway of simultaneous streaming residuals was that the TV play of the commercial was sufficient for measuring residuals payment, because the union theorized that a viewer was watching either on the TV or on the app, so residuals were essentially paid and presumably residuals for simultaneous streaming would be redundant. But SAG-AFTRA’s case not to pay for residuals on simultaneous streaming used flawed reasoning.

SAG-AFTRA’s Flawed Reasoning for Not Paying Residuals for Simultaneously Streamed Commercials

I live in a one-TV home, and sometimes one person is watching one live program and its respective live commercials on the TV, while another person is watching another live program and its respective live commercials on a streaming app.

In effect, if I am watching commercials on my app while another program is on the TV, I am seeing those simultaneously-streamed commercials without the SAG-AFTRA members’ getting residuals payments. I’m getting their product demonstration and sales pitch for free.

The commercials airing on the app are not qualifying the members for residuals payment because SAG-AFTRA used flawed reasoning that a home watches live television via either TV or app, rather than considering the possibility that live television may be watched at the same time via TV and app.

Put another way, it presumed everyone in a home is watching the same programming on a single device, rather than considering that multiple people in a home may be watching live television on multiple devices.

I personally believe the actors in simultaneously streamed commercials should be paid for their use, and if SAG-AFTRA fought for these members, they could be better able to pay their bills and feed their families — even more so these days with the proliferation of streaming apps.

Are the Basic Premises of the Current Commercials Contract Obsolete?

The Commercials Contract language above is interesting for another reason, in that it shows the age of the language in light of the advertising industry today and its respective breed of commercials. The language is suggestive of a time when “pitchmen” or “pitchwomen” might be more obviously pitching a product in a commercial, as in this kind of commercial from 1955 featuring Mike Wallace:


Wallace’s work on this commercial definitely fits the characterization that he is performing “the duties of a demonstrator or salesperson of a particular product.”  But take more modern commercials, like Geico commercials, in which there is no pitchman or pitchwoman but instead a relatively absurd comedic premise. One has to ask the question whether any product demonstration or sales is happening in the same sense that Wallace does it in the above commercial. For context, here are several Geico commercials in a YouTube playlist:


Since there is arguably little to no sales or product demonstration in these commercials, is there argument for residuals? It would seem there is less argument for residuals, but not a complete counterargument given that the Commercials Contract also fights for residuals because identification with a product can diminish future employment opportunities in commercials.

But to that point, if the actor is in disguise as to conceal his or her true identity (as in the Geico “Caveman Airport” commercial), how is there identification of the actor with the Geico product? Doesn’t being in prosthetic makeup help this actor work on future commercials?

How SAG-AFTRA Actively Prevents Its Members from “Paying the Bills”

Rather than blaming the Joint Policy Committee for the monetary tribulations of SAG-AFTRA members, there is also the argument to be made that SAG-AFTRA itself is largely responsible for causing its members financial and economic harm.

SAG-AFTRA prevents its members from earning a living and feeding their families in requiring members only to work on union commercials and barring them from working on non-union commercials. This SAG-AFTRA rule is known as Global Rule One.

As Deadline reported recently, non-union commercials do not always pay chump change, and instead they can pay thousands of dollars to actors, even though that wage may be less than what union actors would make on the commercial were it unionized. If SAG-AFTRA members were able to work on non-union commercials, then, rather than making $0 on such non-union commercials, they would have the potential to earn several thousand dollars to inevitably extend their ability to pay bills and feed their families.

Financial Core Status for SAG-AFTRA Members

That said, in order to detach from the obligation to abide by SAG-AFTRA’s rules and avoid potential prosecution from working against them, SAG-AFTRA members could declare financial core status, which is a United States Supreme Court-backed right to fund only a union’s collective bargaining activity and not its political activity.

Financial core status allows the SAG-AFTRA member to be free from the obligations and threats of union rules and instead work on union and non-union commercials alike. This video from sister site Fi-Core Central serves as a primer on what’s popularly known as “fi-core”:


That said, financial core members lose their voting rights, so they cannot vote on proposed Commercials Contracts and, at least in theory, cannot attend SAG-AFTRA meetings on wages and working conditions to voice their interests and concerns.

But it is arguable whether fi-core members can truly be barred from SAG-AFTRA wages and working condition meetings and sharing their contract issues, as suggested by the opinion in the 1979 United States District of Columbia Court of Appeals case Branch 6000, National Association of Letter Carriers v. NLRB.

Would SAG-AFTRA Strike against Commercial Production?

An industry observer might say “it’s hard to say” whether SAG-AFTRA would strike against commercial production.

I say it’s not hard to say. I believe that if SAG-AFTRA were to threaten a commercial strike, the threat would be empty for the reasons below. I do not believe SAG-AFTRA will go on strike against the Joint Policy Committee and their producers.

A Lack of Strike Authorization

Despite the union’s hard rhetoric complaining for the interests of its “struggling” members, SAG-AFTRA has yet to ask its members for strike authorization in going into the negotiations.

If granted by SAG-AFTRA members, such authorization would give the union more leverage at the bargaining table because the union could back up any threats of a potential work stoppage.

If a strike authorization were not granted by members — possibly because members would not want another commercials strike, as it had for six months in 2000 — that could make it harder for the union at the bargaining table to wield threats.

Without a strike authorization, SAG-AFTRA would basically need to “muscle up” and truly fight for its members to earn a new and better Commercials Contract. If the negotiating team doesn’t win well enough for members, the members may vote against ratification of a proposed 2019 Commercials Contract.

SAG-AFTRA Membership Seems Always to “Overwhelmingly” Vote Yes

But would members vote against whatever to which the SAG-AFTRA negotiating team agrees, even if it is by all measures weak or objectively bad?

If recent history is any guide, the union will achieve an agreement with the other side, will tell members to “Vote Yes” on the proposed agreement, and SAG-AFTRA members on the whole will follow the union’s guidance and vote yes to ratify the proposed Commercials Contract, even if the contract troubles a number of members.

Then the union will announce that members, quote, “overwhelmingly” voted yes to ratify the contract. It may or may not publicly share the vote tallies.

In light of this pattern, SAG-AFTRA might suspect that any agreement that it presents to its members will be “overwhelmingly” ratified. Therefore, the union will be unlikely to strike because there seems a likely chance that a new Commercials Contract can be reached without one — especially if the union tells its members to “Vote Yes” on it.

SAG-AFTRA Would Likely Spin Its Gains and Hedge on Its Losses (or Lack of Gains)

All in all, as much as I want to be concerned about what the Joint Policy Committee might have for SAG-AFTRA when negotiating the 2019 Commercials Contract, insofar as SAG-AFTRA does not go to the bargaining table with strike authorization, I am more concerned about what giveaways to which SAG-AFTRA will agree.

My guess is that there will be a lot of negatives for members in the proposed 2019 Commercials Contract, and there will be some glossy positives with a lot of spin.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiated terms, SAG-AFTRA members will “overwhelmingly” vote yes to ratify the proposed 2019 Commercials Contract on the first try, rather than voting no to send the parties back to the bargaining table to secure even better terms for SAG-AFTRA members.

On “Voting No” as a Standard Response to SAG-AFTRA Contract Referenda

These days I tend to recommend everyone to “Vote No” on SAG-AFTRA contracts, especially if those members are out of touch with the proposed contracts or are members who usually don’t cast votes.

Usually I find plenty to balk at in the proposed contracts, as well as propaganda aimed to distract away from the lack of gains in particular areas or compromises in areas that shouldn’t be compromised for members.

I tend to recommend voting yes only, of course, when there is good reason for that member to vote in that way. The reason is that nearly every SAG-AFTRA ballot comes with SAG-AFTRA telling members how to vote, and usually that’s in the affirmative, so it’s an uphill battle for dissenters to ever get contract terms in their interest.

Wait, Wasn’t There Supposed to Be a Media Blackout, Ray Rodriguez of SAG-AFTRA?

Keep a lookout for more union rhetoric about the 2019 Commercials Contract. While presumably both parties will be under media blackout during negotiations, Chief Contracts Officer Ray Rodriguez of SAG-AFTRA and Stacy K. Marcus of the Joint Policy Committee are scheduled to present at the Association of National Advertiers (ANA) 2019 Advertising Law & Public Policy Conference in Washington, DC, on March 19, 2019, at 10:40am.

(Deadline reported on February 3, 2019, that SAG-AFTRA Executive Director David White will serve as Chief Negotiator for SAG-AFTRA.)

It’s unclear to me how this presentation is not in violation of a media blackout or whether audio and video from the session will be available for SAG-AFTRA members to watch and hear. Here’s the listing from the website for the event:

The $3 billion commercials contracts between SAG-AFTRA and the JPC expire March 31, 2019. As the industry and technology continue to evolve, the challenges in negotiating the decades old collective bargaining agreement are daunting. Hear an update from the JPC’s Chief Negotiator, Stacy Marcus, and SAG-AFTRA’s Chief Contracts Officer, Ray Rodriguez, on the status of the negotiations and how the union and industry are building a collaborative relationship to bring commercial production into a new era.
Stacy Marcus
Chief Negotiator, Joint Policy Comm. on Broadcast Talent Union Relations
Partner, Reed Smith LLP
Ray Rodriguez
Chief Contracts Officer

In Conclusion …

Stay tuned, stand-ins.

Do you have an opinion on the above situation with respect to the use of celebrities in SAG-AFTRA negotiations? Does it insult you when you hear celebrities or the union complain about the difficulty of “feeding a family” from Commercials work? Do you have a correction? Post in the comments section below!