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Issue #1717      February 3, 2016

The union alternative to the Oscars

LOS ANGELES: Leonardo DiCaprio and Cate Blanchett are union members. So are Clare Danes, Louis CK, and Peter Dinklage. They were all in Los Angeles on January 30 as nominees for their union’s highest honour – the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Unlike the better-known Academy Awards, SAG Awards are decided exclusively by their fellow practitioners: All 116,741 members of SAG-AFTRA get ballots and can watch the entries online.

The SAG Awards are also unlike the Oscars in that they are for film and television, and include categories that honour outstanding performances by entire casts, not just individuals.

With a gala dinner, an auction, and sales of bleacher seats to the red carpet affair, the event also raises funds for the SAG-AFTRA Foundation, which funds a children’s literacy program and provides scholarships and health and financial aid to members and their families.

“Yes, it’s glitzy and glamorous, but really it’s about celebrating our union,” says SAG-AFTRA national board member Mary McDonald-Lewis, a Portland, Oregon, voice actor and dialect coach.

McDonald-Lewis said she’s especially excited this year about the nominations for Trumbo, a true-to-life film about Hollywood radicalism, and for performances in The Big Short and 99 Homes, both which are about financial fraud in the mortgage industry.

Everyone’s heard of the Academy Awards but few know the anti-union origins of its sponsor, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio boss Louis Mayer founded The Academy in 1927 to prevent unionisation in the film industry.

As an invitation-only professional organisation, the Academy was meant to be a more prestigious alternative to unionisation. With separate branches for producers, actors, writers, directors, and technicians, it would settle workplace disputes and eliminate the need for unions and strikes – while remaining controlled by producers.

From 1927 to 1933, the Academy functioned as a company union. In competition with the Screen Actors Guild and other unions, it developed a standard contract covering terms and conditions of work.

Hollywood unionised anyway in 1933, and company-controlled unions were outlawed in 1935. But the Academy continues on as a way to promote the film industry. To this day, its membership is self-selecting, and secret.

People’s World

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