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03/08/2017 06:50 pm ET

Telemundo Actors Join Union In A First For U.S. Spanish-Language Television

“It’s historic for people in Spanish-language television,” the union president said.

Telenovela actors at Telemundo voted overwhelmingly to unionize on Wednesday, bringing collective bargaining to the world of U.S. Spanish-language television.

It had been 65 years since actors at a major U.S. network had cast ballots in a union election, according to the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The union says Telemundo performers voted 91 to 21 in favor of unionizing, though the results have not yet been ratified by government officials.

Telemundo, which is owned by NBC-Universal, had been an outlier in U.S. television as the only network using professional actors not working under union contracts. The network’s telenovela soap operas are extremely popular, helping it recently outperform its prime competitor, Univision, with huge primetime ratings.

“It’s historic for people in Spanish-language television,” Gabrielle Carteris, president of SAG-AFTRA, told The Huffington Post. “We want people to be on a fair, level playing field no matter what language they speak.”

A Telemundo spokeswoman sent a statement saying the network was “disappointed with the result” of the union election, but was committed to negotiating a contract. “We continue to be dedicated to making Telemundo a great place to work and to Telemundo’s long-term success,” she said.

The union will include roughly 150 actors, dancers, singers and stunt performers.

Pablo Azar, a Telemundo actor, said the network’s performers hoped to achieve the same standards and guarantees that unionized American actors have long enjoyed at traditional U.S. networks. That includes an assurance of residuals ― industry speak for royalties ―  since Telemundo’s offerings are distributed around the world. Many also hope to gain health coverage through the union and overtime pay, he said.

Azar said the network had strongly urged performers to vote against the union, airing anti-union videos at work and sending anti-union materials to workers’ homes. 

“It was a long journey, and it was hard,” said the 35-year-old Azar, a Mexico native who, like many Telemundo performers, lives in Miami. “We fought against fear. A lot of the actors were afraid of speaking up or of signing anything. But here we are.”

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