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.