Late last year, Telemundo was riding high on a wave of success. As the result of a push for original programming, the Comcast-NBC Universal-owned network was now competing, and in some cases, beating its competition, Univision, in ratings. Many of the performers who worked for Telemundo, however, were not seeing the fruits of that success. For roughly three years, Telemundo actors have sought compensation for overtime, residual payments and health insurance — and now they’ve taken steps to secure.
In a historic victory, Telemundo performers, a majority of which are Spanish-language talent, voted 91 to 21 in favor of joining the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA). Telemundo currently employs about 500 performers on the more than 100 telenovela episodes it produces each year, mostly in Miami, according to Deadline.
Many of the actors and entertainers who work on major TV shows, films, and commercials are members of the SAG-AFTRA union, which helps establish their base pay, gives them access to health insurance and other benefits. Telemundo did not work with SAG-AFTRA, meaning its performers working on U.S.-based telenovelas were paid less and were not eligible for the protections and benefits provided by the union.
Actress Katie Barberi, a longtime member of SAG-AFTRA, voted to unionize because her work with Telemundo was not protected. She calls the vote to unionize a miracle.
“I have always wanted to [unionize],” said Barberi, who’s been in about 20 telenovelas. She said it’s “for the benefit of everyone. Even for the benefit of those that aren’t so sure if it’s a good idea.”
Barberi says that she understands how much a union contract benefits an actor because she’s worked on both sides of the spectrum, with her membership with SAG-AFTRA and without. Her job as an actress has taken her to work in various countries including Mexico and Colombia, and in Miami, which is where Telemundo productions are primarily located.
She says the most important exclusion that actors face by not having a union contract is not being paid residuals for syndicated programming. Telemundo sells their telenovela productions to 50 and 80 countries, and yet they never are compensated for any of this revenue.
This is a very unusual because actors on major TV shows are paid royalties for their work. However, Telemundo performers never see a dime from these worldwide sales.
Barberi said the small margin of those that voted against unionizing were plagued with fear and didn’t want to betray their employer.
Earlier this year, Telemundo president Luis Silberwasser released a video where he asked his employees to vote against unionizing.
In the video, Silberwasser said that Telemundo was giving many people opportunities, employing “Spanish-speaking actors and actresses in Miami, who otherwise would’ve never seen their dreams come true.” He continued by saying that “Telemundo is a family that works together, for better or worse,” and that they could “achieve better things working together, directly, without the union.”
Many Telemundo performers believed Silberwasser’s video was a form of indirect intimidation and worried about retaliation if they unionized.
“There was big fear among our coworkers,” Barberi tells mitú. “even though we tried to express throughout the campaign that every vote would be secret.” She said that even though the voting process is done thoroughly and without names, some people didn’t believe them. Silberwasser’s words did not persuade enough voters in his favor.
Another actor who voted to unionize is Mexican actor Pablo Azar. He told mitú he is thrilled over the outcome.
“This was a long process,” Azar tells mitú. “Me and my fellow actors were afraid that this would never happen.”
The 34-year-old, who can be seen in telenovelas such as “Bella Calamidades” and “El Talisman,” has sold original paintings and worked as an Uber driver to make ends meet.
Azar says they faced a lot of obstacles against a unionization, including the working laws in Miami, so it was very encouraging to have the support of A-List actors. The campaign had the support from current SAF-AFTRA members Alec Baldwin, Rosario Dawson, Susan Sarandon, Andy Garcia, Chris Rock, Kate del Castillo, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jaime Camil, Rita Moreno, Scarlett Johansson, Zoe Saldana and Bryan Cranston.
On social media, people showed their support for Telemundo actors with the hashtag #SagAftraUnidos.
In a press release, actor Luis Guzman said he was “very proud of all those who took a step forward towards equality and the fundamental right of being represented by SAG-AFTRA,” and added “In unity y siempre p’alante mi gente!”
SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris said this vote sends a “powerful message of hope and solidarity at a critical moment in the history of our union and of the creative community.”
“Regardless of the language we speak, we can all unite to improve conditions for performers working professionally in our industry,” Carteris said. “Telemundo performers have laid a foundation that will improve lives for generations to come.”
A representative for Telemundo released the following statement regarding the unionization of their employees, saying that while the network “is disappointed with this result, we remain committed to all of our employees and will move forward with the negotiation process after the election results have been certified by the NLRB. We continue to be dedicated to making Telemundo a great place to work and to Telemundo’s long-term success.”