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“Isn’t It Simple as One, Two, Three? One, the Working Conditions Are Bad.”

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AFTRA brochure, undated; Printed Ephemera Collection on Trade Unions; PE 001; Box 1; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

The drama! The excitement! The dresses! The hermeneutic subtext on identity politics, the emptiness of financial success, and the inevitable mortality we all must one day confront! That’s right, it’s film awards season, and we are rapidly approaching its peak. Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be spotlighting our performing arts collections and other materials in our holdings related to some of this year’s nominated works.

The upcoming Screen Actors Guild Award recognizes performances in film and primetime television, and is an excellent opportunity to discuss why actors and other entertainment professionals benefit from union membership. The SAG Award’s presenting body is SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). Though they may lead glamorous lives the likes of which us lowly mortals could barely understand, these performers are also workers, whose interests and rights need to be protected – Stars, just like us!
Unions like SAG-AFTRA lobby for and enforce standards in wages, contracts, working hours, on-set safety conditions, regulations for child performers, protections against discrimination or wrongful termination, health and pension benefits, residual and syndication payments, and employment opportunities for women, minorities, seniors, and people with disabilities. Policies and laws governing these protections are the result of lengthy and hard-fought efforts on behalf of union governance and its members.

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Telegram from Frances Reid, 30 October 1951; Actors’ Equity Association Records; WAG 011; Box 18, Folder 18; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

Tamiment Library holds the records of many entertainment unions and organizations, including the Actor’s Equity Association (WAG 011) and AFTRA’s national office (WAG 281) and New York branch (WAG 282). Correspondence, memoranda, photographs, reports, ephemera, publications, legal files, and meeting minutes are the products of the organizations’ activities, serving as the recorded memory of notable campaigns and events in the history of the entertainment industry.

In 1958, Actor’s Equity Association Executive Secretary Angus Duncan traveled to Baltimore to deliver formal remarks to urge the passage of Civil Rights Ordinance 1653, a public accommodations bill, stating, “Actors – although individualistic – do not act alone – they act together – with other actors – as a team. If we did not work together – and were not sensitive to each other – you would not witness a performance but a series of monologues. And so as we work – and perform and travel together – we are sensitive to each others’ problems…” It is this spirit that professional actors, performers, and other entertainment professionals create and join unions, to protect both themselves and others.
So come on into the archives, Mr. DeMille. We’re ready for our close-up.

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