American Federation of Television and Radio ArtistsAlternative names
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), founded in 1952, is a union of approximately 70,000 members representing professional actors, journalists, dancers, singers, announcers, hosts, comedians, and disc jockeys from numerous media industries, including television, radio, cable, sound recordings, video productions, commercials, audio books, non-broadcast industrials, interactive games, internet productions, and other digital media.
The union traces its origins to several preceding organizations representing members of these disparate groups of performers. Following the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, radio performers in Los Angeles and New York formed the Radio Actors Guild and Radio Equity (an organization under the umbrella of Actors’ Equity), respectively. On August 16, 1937, the two organizations combined to form the American Federation of Radio Artists (AFRA) after being granted a charter by the Associated Actors and Artistes of Americas (also known as The Four A’s). The union began with locations in Los Angeles and New York; by December of 1937, AFRA had over 2,000 members, including 70% of all radio artists, and had added third location in Chicago, the center for soap opera production. Prominent members of the union’s early governance included Eddie Cantor, who served as the first president; inaugural National Executive Secretary Emily Holt; and Broadway actor George Heller, who acted as Ms. Holt’s assistant. AFRA members and major radio performers, including Edgar Bergen, Jack Benny, and Bing Crosby successfully negotiated with NBC and CBS on the first collectively bargained agreement in the field, resulting in significant wage increases.
Disputes over television performers led the Associated Actors and Artistes of America to create the Television Authority (TVA), an amalgam of the major existing performing arts unions, on April 16, 1950. In 1951, while jurisdiction was held in abeyance, AFRA negotiated the first Phonograph Recording Code with major recording labels. On September 17, 1952, TVA and AFRA merged to create a new union known as the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), with nearly 10,000 members and Heller as the organization’s head. During the 1954 Network Television Code negotiations, the union negotiated the AFTRA Pension and Welfare Plan (later known as the AFTRA Health and Retirement Funds), which stands as the industry’s first benefits package and was written into all succeeding agreements. Although early television broadcasts featured live performers, technological advancements in the late 1950s allowed for networks to broadcast repeating programs, leading AFTRA to negotiate the first formula for the payment of replayed performances. These agreements formed the basis of the industry understanding of residuals and syndication. In 1960, AFTRA and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) held their first joint negotiations on the subject of television commercials.
The mid-20th century entertainment industry blacklist (also referred to as the Hollywood blacklist) that denied entertainment professionals employment because of their political beliefs or associations, real or suspected, created strife and dissent within AFTRA. The New York Local was especially vocal over the issue; their motions were sent to a national vote, but all failed. In 1955, the union passed a national referendum stating that any member who refused to cooperate with any government committee investigating alleged disloyalty or subversive activities “shall be subject to the charge that he is guilty of conduct prejudicial to the welfare of AFTRA” and may be “fined, censured, or expelled from the union by the member’s local.” In October 1997, AFTRA formally apologized for this position.
In 1974, conservative author and public intellectual William F. Buckley harshly attacked AFTRA's union shop agreements, the basis of union organizing. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, declined to hear the case. A similar but more serious threat came from a lawsuit filed in 1981 by Tuesday Productions, a San Diego based non-union jingle house. They filed anti-trust charges against AFTRA for attempting to organize performers. The settlement drove the union into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 1982 from which they emerged in 1983 with a verdict that upheld "the unions' right to order members not to work for employers who refuse to enter into collective bargaining agreements."
In succeeding decades, AFTRA signed new agreements in cable, interactive media, and digital performances. Major strikes in 1967 and 1978 occurred when negotiations for various types of contracts broke down. The union, along with SAG, staged a six-month strike against commercial advertisers in 2000. On March 30, 2012, after numerous attempts, the two unions merged, forming SAG-AFTRA.
From the guide to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) National Office Records, Bulk, 1952-1985, 1930-1990, bulk 1952-1985, (Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive)
The American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) New York Local, founded in 1952, is AFTRA’s union branch serving the interests of its members living and working in the greater New York City area, including professional actors, journalists, dancers, singers, announcers, hosts, comedians, and disc jockeys from numerous media industries, including television, radio, cable, sound recordings, video productions, commercials, audio books, non-broadcast industrials, interactive games, internet productions, and other digital media.
The history of AFTRA’s New York Local is tied very closely to that of the national organization. It, along with Los Angeles, was the first local chapter established by the union’s precursor (the American Federation of Radio Artists [AFRA]) and the national headquarters is also located in the city. The New York Local observes and advocates for its members’ wages and working conditions by negotiating local contracts, recruiting members, educating its members on their rights, investigating grievances, filing legal claims, and inspecting working conditions through field representatives.
New York’s historical prominence within the entertainment industry, including the production of radio, television, journalistic, and soap opera programming, have made it one of the largest and most active local chapters within the larger AFTRA union. The history of the local is a reflection of the history and progression of the entertainment industry. The local represents and advocates for members working for national networks and productions that happen to be based in the New York area (such as NBC or “All My Children”), as well as those involved in local productions or network affiliates (such as WNYC or performances from the New York Shakespeare Festival). Many prominent Manhattan-based comedians from the mid-20th century, including Sid Caesar, Mel Brooks, and Carl Reiner, joined and were represented by the New York AFTRA local as they became television performers. The local’s legal representatives and field investigators administered numerous negotiations, claims, and on-set visits for the heavy level of daytime programming production taking place in the city, including talk shows and soap operas. The city’s large media market, including broadcast news, local news media, and non-commercial educational media, contribute to the local’s many members holding positions as announcers, hosts, newscasters, journalists, and disc jockeys.
The mid-20th century entertainment industry blacklist (also referred to as the Hollywood blacklist) that denied entertainment professionals employment based on their political beliefs or associations, real or suspected, created strife and dissent within AFTRA. The New York Local was especially vocal over the issue; their motions were sent to a national vote, but all failed. In 1955, the union passed a national referendum stating that any member who refused to cooperate with any government committee investigating alleged disloyalty or subversive activities “shall be subject to the charge that he is guilty of conduct prejudicial to the welfare of AFTRA” and may be “fined, censured, or expelled from the union by the member’s local.” In October 1997, AFTRA formally apologized for this position.
Major figures in the governance of AFTRA New York include Presidents Mark Smith (1938-1939), Alex McKee (1940), William P. Adams (1941-1944), House Jameson (1945), Clayton “Bud” Collyer (1946-1947), Nelson Case (1948-1949), Alan Bunce (1950-1951), Vinton Hayworth (1952-1954), Travis Johnson (1955), Charles Collingwood (1956), Luis van Rooten (1957), Virginia Payne (1958-1959), Bernard Lenrow (1960), Cliff Norton (1961-1962), Leon Janney (1963), Gene Rayburn (1964), Rex Marshall (1965), Carol Reed (1966), Mel Brandt (1966-1967), Kenneth Roberts (1968-1969), Kenneth Harvey (1970-1972), Jackson Beck (1973-1976), Martha Greenhouse (1977-1981), and Ann Loring (1982). Prominent former Executive Secretaries of the New York Local include George Heller (1937-1949), Kenneth Groot (1950-1952, 1955-1983), A. Frank Reel (1952-1953), Alex McKee (1953-1955), Reginald Dowell (1983-1986), Kim Roberts (1986-1987), and Helayne Antler (1987).
For more information on AFTRA’s national history, please see: Guide to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) National Office Records (WAG 281)
Stand By!, July/August 1987. American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), New York Local Records; WAG 282; Box 17; Folder 2; Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University
From the guide to the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA), New York Local Office Records, 1948-1993, (Tamiment Library and Robert F. Wagner Labor Archive)
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