Coffee Talk is a monthly informal chat between Washington Filmworks staff and local film industry professionals and arts organizations to better understand what it is they do, how our work and missions intersect, and what we can do to support like-minded projects moving forward.
Shellea Allen, the Local Executive Director of SAG-AFTRA Seattle, is passionate about labor organizing. She started as a labor organizer in 2005 with UNITE HERE organizing unions in hotels and airports to better working conditions for mostly low paid immigrant workers. As part of her work with the hospitality union UNITE HERE Local 8, before coming on board to SAG-AFTRA in March, 2016. A self-described “complete film nerd,” her interest in social justice work started while working at Hollywood Video back in 2002.
“I wanted to get health care benefits for my partner and I, and it was against the law at the time. So I started learning about unions and organizing with my coworkers and found that if we wanted to get anything done, we had to organize. It’s always workers that push that forward, no matter what industry you’re in.”
Allen says that although she’s only been at SAG-AFTRA for a few months the variety of the work with the union keeps her busy. “It’s a lot of organizing in film, broadcasting, legislative outreach, and membership work,” she explains.
SAG-AFTRA represents 2400 members across the Pacific Northwest in Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, and Montana.
With the merger of SAG (Screen Actors Guild) and AFTRA (The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) in 2012, the union now represents not only film and television actors but also a variety of media professionals including announcers, broadcast journalists, radio professionals, dancers, recording artists, DJ’s, stunt performers, and voiceover artists, among others. Every day, you see and hear SAG-AFTRA members and their work on the big screen, television and radio, theater, on mobile devices, in games, or on the Internet.
The union serves these members through collective bargaining, offering pension and health care benefits, and workshop and networking opportunities for its members. But integral to the work they do with protecting members is the union contracts they can negotiate with production companies and television broadcasters.
“Our union contracts for our actors provide basic stuff like non-discrimination language, residuals, and money towards your pension and your health care, which is so huge. If you’re working non-union, those benefits are not guaranteed. You could be working 24 hours a day and not get paid a dime. And this stuff happens. Actors will call us and say, ‘I’ve been working on this low budget film for a month now and I’ve never been paid.’”
And with 160,000 members nationwide, Allen adds, this recourse is backed by the ‘power of the people’ to negotiate for better wages and working conditions.
Right now, some critical work that SAG-AFTRA does locally and nationally revolves around health care (even with the Affordable Care Act). The union strives to keep the quality of health care high while making sure the cost stays low. Figuring out ways to grow union density via organizing is also an important goal on Allen’s docket for the coming year – expanding SAG-AFTRA’s local reach to the broadcast industry and other new areas of growth, like gaming. “Broadcast stations used to be owned by local owners, not they are owned by multi-million dollar corporations that are bought and sold like real estate. It’s more important than ever that workers have power and a say on the job.
Allen admits she feels like she’s always catching up with the changing face of technology here in the Pacific Northwest – and what it means for SAG-AFTRA members. There’s a natural crossover for people in the film and acting industry, since many need to have more than one job to get by. But now with the advent of MOCAP (motion capture technology), virtual reality, and gaming, the industry is changing. And as Allen sees it, the need for theater professionals to do voice over work for video games, for example, can only be a good thing for the industry – that is, of course, if the opportunities that open up are also helped along by a strong union presence.
“In gaming, a few companies set the standards,” says Allen. “When I think of the union, people in that industry should also be coming together and pushing for better standards. Gaming is big here and it’s going to continue to get bigger.”
Another major goal for Allen and the local SAG-AFTRA chapter this year includes helping get the film incentive renewed. She wants to see “a competitive film incentive that can help create more jobs here – but not just any jobs,” she explains, “good union jobs.”
“The film incentive is a huge thing for our members,” Allen explains, “how do we continue to get more money into the industry, and to an industry that is staying here? These are jobs that, unlike with Boeing, who is getting the money and shipping jobs out anyways, are not getting exported anywhere. People do this for a living, and we need to grow awareness of this fact outside of this industry.”
For more information on how to join SAG-AFTRA and upcoming events and workshops for members, click here.