Mystery of Financial CoreIf you want to silence a roomful of actors, just repeat the phrase "financial core" several times in a clear, firm voice. You may notice that ears are turned in your direction and that mouths are stilled so as to better hear what you might say about this subject. But despite all the interest, the concept of "financial core" remains rather mysterious, something better left to lawyers and others with knowledge of union rules and arcane federal statutes.Well, it needn't be, but a little explanation is in order.What Does "Financial Core" Mean?For obvious reasons, a union such as the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) is interested in negotiating contract provisions known as "union security clauses" which require union membership as a condition of employment for all employees. If an employer's agreement with a union contains a "union security clause," then that employer is required to hire only union members. Put another way, if you aren't a union member you don't work.Not all employees, however, want to be full-fledged union members. And even those employees who may support the union's goals of better pay, benefits and more favorable work rules, may not support union activities which do not relate directly to the union's core activities of collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment. Can employees be forced to participate in all union activities and to pay all union dues and fees simply because they want to work for an employer who has signed a "union security clause?" The answer is no, but keep reading.Almost 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that, while a union can negotiate a "union security clause" which requires union membership as a condition of employment, an employee can satisfy that membership condition merely by paying to the union an amount equal to the union's initiation fee and dues. This minimal membership requirement is often referred to as the employee's "financial core" obligations to the union. So, if an employee can satisfy his or her "financial core" obligations simply by making payments to the union, the next question is: How much does the employee have to pay?Over the years the Supreme Court has clarified what constitutes a "financial core" obligation and has ruled that a union (such as SAG) must notify employees that they have the right to refuse union membership and, instead, to pay only "financial core" obligations. Currently, "financial core" obligations may include only those fees and dues necessary to support the union's activities as the employees' exclusive bargaining representative. As you may suspect, controversy continues.A Recent "Financial Core" ControversyOne such dispute involved a part-time actress, Naomi Marquez, who accepted a one-line role in an episode of a television series "Medicine Ball;" produced by Lakeside Productions. Lakeside signed a SAG collective bargaining agreement that included a standard "union security clause" requiring that any performer who worked under the agreement must be a "member of [SAG] in good standing." Under SAG rules, Marquez was required to pay $500 in SAG initiation fees before she could begin working for Lakeside.Over a period of several days, Marquez attempted to negotiate an agreement with SAG that would allow her to pay the $500 union fee after she was paid by Lakeside. She was unable to obtain the union's agreement before the start of production and, since Marquez had not paid the fee, Lakeside hired another actress for that part. Sadly, sometime after the new actress had been hired, SAG sent a letter to Lakeside stating that SAG had no objection to Marquez being hired for the production.Not surprisingly, Marquez sued Lakeshore and SAG alleging, among other things, that SAG had violated its duty of fair representation by failing to notify her truthfully about her right not to join the union, and that the "union security clause" in the agreement between SAG and Lakeside was misleading. A portion of this case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1998 and was resolved by an opinion of the Court which you can view at http://supct.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/97-1056.ZS.html. It also provides a good summary of the "financial core" controversy.In that opinion, titled "Marquez v. Screen Actors Guild, Inc.," the Court decided only the very narrow issue of whether SAG had breached its duty to Marquez by negotiating a "union security clause" which tracked the language of the National Labor Relations Act, the statute which authorizes such clauses. While the Court found in favor of SAG, the controversy did not end because the Supreme Court noted that it was not deciding two other important issues raised by Marquez, namely, whether SAG had adequately notified Marquez of her right to elect "financial core" core status, and whether SAG had enforced the union security clause in accordance with federal law. Those issues were to be resolved by other courts or by the National Labor Relations Board.So what does this mean for the average actor? First, that SAG is required to provide you with information which describes your right to elect "financial core" status rather than full union membership. While you won't be considered a full-fledged member of the union by electing "financial core" status, you will have the right to work on SAG projects. Second, it means that SAG must enforce the payment of "financial core" obligations in a manner which is consistent with federal law.My experience with the staff of the Chicago SAG office has been very positive and, when representing actors and production companies, I've found the local SAG office to be quite helpful in resolving controversies quickly and efficiently. So, if you have a question about your rights, ask, and if you have a problem, write a letter or send an e-mail to the local SAG office. Just don't miss an opportunity to work simply because you are confused about "financial core."And while the controversy over "financial core" will continue, the mystery should not.
Hyperlinks inserted by me. You can also read a summary of Marquez v. Screen Actors Guild.