After what turned out to be the largest union election in Spanish-language media in U.S. history—and the largest election for actors since the 1950s — Telemundo performers have voted “Yes” on a National Labor Relations Board election to unionize with SAG-AFTRA. The guild which currently represents over 150,000 performers across the United States had been working aggressively over the past year alongside Telemundo actors and actresses to inform them of the benefits they would enjoy as part of the country’s labor union specifically dedicated to media performers. The result of the election marks a historic success for those working in Spanish-language television at the Miami-based network which prides itself on being the largest employer of Spanish-language performers in the U.S.
The decision marks the end of an at-times quite heated debate. Leading up to the paper ballot vote, which was open to about 150 eligible voters who had worked a requisite amount of days in Telemundo-produced telenovelas in 2016, both sides had openly campaigned for the merits of a Yes or a No vote. SAG-AFTRA made a point of singling out the double standard they saw happening where performers represented by the union working for NBC (that, like Telemundo, is owned by NBCUniversal/Comcast) had higher wages and better benefits. Indeed, actors working for the marquee shows that have made Telemundo a prime time ratings competitor not only to fellow Spanish-aimed network Univision but to the Big Three (ABC, NBC, CBS), currently get no access to health and pension benefits, and get no residuals for repeat airings of their shows.
Meanwhile, in the type of public statement that seems all but designed to be called out as “union-busting,” back in January Telemundo president Luis Silberwasser played the “we are all family” card, urging those working for his network’s productions to vote against unionizing. First circulated as an email to Telemundo talent and later published online as a video (which got quickly pulled, no doubt after seeing the fiery responses to it across the web), Silberwasser’s argument amounted to saying that negotiations would best be kept in the family, lest one worry oneself about the economic and legal ramifications that involving a union in contract discussions would bring.
For many of us who think of telenovela stars solely in terms of the actors who play the leads, win awards, and are household names, the issues that SAG-AFTRA has been championing shed a light on those performers who play the smaller roles and who may make their wages by doing bit parts here and there. Hourly wages on a telenovela that doesn’t pay you time and a half unless you’re working more than 11 hours a day, or that doesn’t even offer you any kind of benefits, can make it that much harder to succeed as a working actor. And while English-language performers have had now for decades the support of their union, that hasn’t been the case for those working in the Spanish-language industry in the U.S.
Pablo Azar, for example, whom Telemundo viewers will recognize from his roles on Reina de corazones and La Fan, opened up last year about his need to work as an Uber driver to make ends meet. You read that right, the same telenovela star you swoon over every night may very well be giving you your next ride back to your apartment after a night out. The Mexican actor, who has campaigned widely on behalf of the Yes vote to join SAG-AFTRA, was ecstatic when talking with Remezcla shortly after hearing about the election results.
“It’s unbelievable. It means a lot—because this is a process that’s taken way longer than people actually know. We’ve been fighting for this for more than 10 years.” Having been actively involved in the campaign, he experienced firsthand how hard it was to convince his fellow actors to speak up and to join him in advocating for the union. “There were a lot of actors who were afraid of speaking up and afraid of voting, afraid of supporting this even though they knew in their hearts that it was the right thing to do. But now seeing that we won with 81% of the votes, it’s just amazing that the effort we all put in is finally paying off.”
Echoing Azar’s excitement as well as his conviction that the vote will hopefully pave a way forward for performers, SAG-AFTRA, and Telemundo to work together in upcoming contract negotiations was SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris. “It was absolutely a decisive vote and people spoke,” she told Remezcla. “It’s historical. And it’s meaningful not just for our union and the Spanish-speaking performers but it’s actually meaningful to the young generation. This is our way of helping them set up up their futures so they can have security that they might not otherwise had. It’s really wonderful.”
Even while signing off Carteris couldn’t help but leave us with three powerful words that sum up the hope one feels when these grassroots movements take hold and effect change for the better: “Sí se puede.”