Llegó El Sindicato: New Telenovela Actors Union Could Mean More To Come For Spanish-Language TV

Nov 28, 2017

In the telenovela Reina de Corazones, Pablo Azar plays a revenge-seeking son who poses as a valet driver to get even for his mother’s death.

“The murderer is always the nice guy, the innocent one,” he says in one of the scenes, as he brandishes a gun in an immaculate South Florida living room.  

But Azar, with a self-described “good guy face” who usually is cast as a heart-throb or good-guy-turned-bad, is now playing a role he’s never been cast for on TV: union organizer.

Actors unions have long been a part of the Hollywood tradition, one that largely excluded a large and growing part of this country’s population. A recent union victory among Spanish-language actors in South Florida, though, could be part of turning that tide.

Azar, who began his acting career in Mexico in a TV Azteca production, was surprised when he transitioned to work with Telemundo in South Florida.

“Usually you have better conditions in the U.S. than in countries like Mexico, Colombia,” said Azar, “But, funny enough, for actors it's backwards. Actors have better working conditions in Mexico than they have here in Miami. At least, I'm talking about Hispanic actors.”

The path to recognition 

Reina de Corazones is just one of a dozen shows Azar has been cast in by Telemundo. He’s also been in the telenovelas Aurora, Corazon Valiente, La Fan, El Cuerpo.

Each program ran every day - Monday through Friday--for months, resulting in more than 100 episodes per show.

“Sometimes you shoot 40 scenes in one single day. So it's very demanding,” said Azar. “You have to be available almost all the time. So that's why it's so important to have the proper conditions for these actors, because they're not able to do anything else."

In the U.S, telenovelas actors on Telemundo were for the most part contract workers, working without benefits, workplace protections or overtime pay. Actors got no residuals--payment for the rebroadcast or sale of an old show—which are a standard part of union contracts with actors in the U.S. Also, telenovelas actors were barred from speaking out against Telemundo, according to the actors there.

Actors in New York strike in 1933.
Credit Courtesy New York Public Library

But Azar did just that … He helped organize his fellow actors and in March won union recognition by the National Labor Relations Board and by Telemundo by an 81-percent margin. It was a historic vote, according to SAG-AFTRA, the union that now represents the actors. The last time employees at a major television network went to a balloted election was more than 55 years ago.

“It is trailblazing because this is a part of the industry that really hasn't been addressed by performer unions and it's time for that to happen,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief operating officer and general counsel of SAG-AFTRA, one of the largest unions for performers and entertainers in the U.S.

SAG-AFTRA is now at the negotiating table trying to hammer out a new contract for Telemundo actors in the U.S.

Will this bring more Latinos to organized labor?

There have already been a few changes. The actors are now considered full-time employees and they’re allowed to speak out against the company.

“[The Spanish-language entertainment industry] didn't start out in exactly the same place that the English-language television networks started out in the 50s or that the English-language movie industry started out in the 30s and 20s,” said Crabtree-Ireland.

But Spanish-language networks Telemundo and Univision are becoming serious competitors with major English-language networks. Telemundo now ranks 6th in primetime viewership, just behind ESPN, beating out USA, CW and TBS, according to the latest Nielsen ratings.

The relatively recent success and growth of the Spanish-language networks have also brought about a push to get more Latino representation in organized labor.

Union membership by year.
Credit Bureau of Labor Statistics

Unions in the U.S. are overwhelmingly white--around 76 percent--according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

And as union participation hits historic lows, union participation by Latinos is growing when you look at sheer numbers. In fact, it's one of the fastest growing demographics both in the overall U.S. population and in union participation.

Union participation by Hispanic or Latino individuals by year.
Credit Bureau of Labor Statistics

“I was convinced that one of the reasons why unionization was in decline was that fewer and fewer people actually knew anything about what a union was, what its history [was],” said Wilma Liebman, former chairwoman of the National Labor Relations Board and a board member for 14 years.

She says visibility can do a lot to reverse the history of Latino worker exclusion in Unions, especially when it’s “people who look good,” she chuckled.

Wilma B. Liebman testifying before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Labor in 2007.
Credit Creative Commons

In the same vein, Liebman points to 2011, when the NFL was going through a negotiation process with its union.

Telemundo declined to be interviewed for this story, but a spokesperson sent a statement saying:

“We have the utmost respect for our talent, who breathe life into our shows’ characters each and every day.  We are continuing to negotiate with SAG-AFTRA in good faith.  We look forward to our next meeting with the union and hope that we will soon arrive at a mutually acceptable agreement. We remain committed to all of our employees and to making Telemundo a great place to work.”

The threat of taking jobs abroad

One of the ongoing concerns for SAG AFTRA, according to Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, is “there is always the threat of taking work out of the United States as a way of avoiding responsibilities, whether it's labor law responsibilities or whether it's, you know, negotiations with the union.”

They’re worried Telemundo will move more work to Latin America in order to cut costs and not have to meet demands from the actors in South Florida. It's a concern that is not isolated to the Spanish-language entertainment industry. English-language projects have long moved shoots to Canada or Mexico for similar reasons, but it’s a more immediate possibility for Telemundo, which already has productions and relationships in Latin America.

"It is an awakening for us for all Hispanics in the U.S., and I don't think it's only for Hispanics in the entertainment business. It's for all Hispanics in general" - Pablo Azar

So, SAG-AFTRA reached out to a number of actors groups and unions across Latin America to solicit support. Ultimately, it hopes people there won’t take the jobs that would otherwise go to union actors in the U.S.

“The only weapon, to use the word, the only way you can do it is to educate people, you know,” said Adriana Romero, a Colombian actress and president of the actors union in Colombia, Asociación Colombiana de Actores.

Romero says while her organization supports what the Telemundo actors are doing, it’s a small and relatively new union.  It doesn’t have the power to prevent its members from taking available jobs.

And with ongoing problems in neighboring Venezuela, she’s seen an influx of even more actors looking for work. A job is a job.

“We don’t have that kind of thing like if the union says it, you have to accept it, no?” Romero lamented. “If [Telemundo does move jobs], we’re going to try to make the actors understand why it’s not good for us to accept those conditions, but that is going to be very, very difficult.”

She does say what’s happening at Telemundo has been helpful in communicating the benefits of collective bargaining to her own members in Colombia.

“It’s a good example for everyone,” Romero added.

Those ripple effects have been felt closer to home too.

Actor Pablo Azar isn’t ready to call these efforts a success yet.  He’s waiting for that first contract between his union and Telemundo to be finalized. But he says there is already an important impact of their efforts.

"It is an awakening for us for all Hispanics in the U.S., and I don't think it's only for Hispanics in the entertainment business. It's for all Hispanics in general,” said  Azar. “It's a wake-up call to say, 'Hey, your work is worth equal as someone else that speaks and speaks any other language.' ”