By Daniel Wiessner
(Reuters) - U.S.-based Spanish-language actors and other performers at Telemundo Television Studios LLC have voted for the first time to form a union, which many of them say is necessary to address inequities between them and English-speaking actors.
The Telemundo performers voted 91-21 in favor of joining SAG-AFTRA, the 160,000-member union for U.S. film and television actors, according to results released by the National Labor Relations Board on Wednesday.
Joining the union will allow Telemundo actors, along with singers, dancers and stunt people, to bargain with the network for health insurance, residual payments, overtime pay and other benefits that are routine at English-language television networks.
Miami-based Telemundo, a unit of NBCUniversal Media LLC [CMCSAN.UL], opposed the formation of a union. An NLRB official in January rejected the network's claim that many of the performers were independent contractors who could not unionize.
A spokesperson on Wednesday said the network was disappointed but would "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."
David White, the national executive director of SAG-AFTRA, said the election capped a long and challenging campaign, as many Telemundo performers had concerns about unionizing.
"They are planting firm roots in the American media landscape and today demanded that they are treated fairly as workers in this country,” he said.
Before NBC acquired Telemundo in 2001, most Spanish-language programming shown in the United States was produced in Mexico, Spain and other countries using unionized actors.
Telemundo now produces three or four soap operas, known as telenovelas, in the United States each year, employing about 500 people primarily in the Miami area, according to the network.
SAG-AFTRA and many Telemundo actors say that as the network has climbed in the ratings and stepped up its production in Miami in recent years, the differences in working conditions between its performers and those at NBC and other English-language networks have become stark.
In fact, unionized Spanish-speaking actors in Mexico and other countries often earn more and have better benefits than their counterparts in the United States, Pablo Azar, a telenovela actor from Mexico with a role in the new Telemundo show "La Fan" said in an interview last week.
With a union, he said, "we are finally going to be at a place where we feel equal to English-speaking actors."
(Reporting by Daniel Wiessner in Albany, New York; Editing by Alexia Garamfalvi and Alistair Bell)