There has been a lot of news about entertainment workers lately, with the latest headlines focusing on SAG-AFTRA. SAG-AFTRA is the union that represents most actors when they work in film and television production in the United States. Now, the union has voted unanimously to issue a strike order with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), a trade group formed to represent studios, broadcast networks, and streaming services in labor negotiations with the union. The consequence of this SAG-AFTRA strike is that almost all film and television production with live actors will be halted until the two sides can come to an agreement. Actors will also not be allowed to participate in news or promotional events such as puppet shows or red carpet premieres. SAG-AFTRA members will join the now-emerging writers for the first time in 60 years – and it all starts at midnight on Thursday, July 13.
If you have questions about the SAG-AFTRA strike, keep reading for a Hollywood labor primer!
How does SAG-AFTRA work?
Unions work by gaining benefits through collective bargaining. Currently, most actors with any on-camera experience are members of SAG-AFTRA. Members of SAG-AFTRA are not permitted to work as actors in any production without an agreement with the union. Any project that wants to work with SAG-AFTRA actors – independent films, short films, student films – must first go to the union, which will sign a number of pre-existing agreements based on the type of production and size. of the budget. These contracts determine what your actors will be paid, the amount they must receive as a retainer, and set rules for how the actors must be performed.
Additionally, SAG-AFTRA has an overall contract with AMPTP, whose members include every major studio and streamer. The contract is renegotiated every three years and determines the quality of the highest paid performances in the industry. As the expiration date approaches, the negotiating teams for SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP sit down to determine what needs to be improved from one contract to the next, and resolve disagreements, so a new contract can be put in place. The old one is expired, there is no gap. That’s usually how it ends. However, the latest contract expires on June 30, with no deal in place.
Why is everyone in Hollywood so prominent right now?
If you thought the past few months had been an unusual conflict between entertainment industry producers and the workforce, you’d be wrong. The phrase “hot summer labor” is wildly trending for a reason. The Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), which represents film and television writers, and the Directors Guild of America (DGA), which represents directors, (and assistant directors, and second assistant directors, etc.), also work on a three-year contract. with AMPTP. And, for many years, the contracts were synced up so that they expired back to back, starting with the WGA.
On May 30, the WGA contract expired without an agreement; Its members have been protesting and being elected for two months. Writers are prominent because a writing career that provides a sustainable income has become unattainable. Mainly, this is because streaming services, which can pay less under the current agreement, now make up a large share of the industry. The WGA has a tradition of being prepared to strike. The last major strike in the entertainment industry was also the Writers’ Strike, in 2008, and the WGA came close again in 2017. However, streaming has been extremely disruptive for everyone in the industry, and so there is hope that, with the WGA leading the way, the DGA and SAG-AFTRA may join them on the picket line for a “Three Strikes.”
Before the negotiations, SAG-AFTRA leadership called for a vote to authorize the strike. Allowing a strike, if approved by a majority vote of all members, gives the negotiating team the power to call for a strike if they feel it is the best way to get a fair deal. Unions tend to hold these votes when negotiations don’t go well (that’s how it went down between the AMPTP and the WGA). The demand for permission to hold protests before the start of negotiations is a strong signal that It shows that the union is ready to stick to its demands. If the vote is allowed to pass by a wide margin, it will show AMPTP that the membership is ready to make the short-term sacrifices that the strike requires, and that the need to improve labor practices in the industry in the long-term is strong. On June 3, the ballots were counted, and SAG-AFTRA members voted 97.6% in support of allowing the strike.
What does SAG-AFTRA request from AMPTP?
While the specifics are unknown, communications from within SAG-AFTRA have emphasized the need for better salaries, stronger contributions to the union’s pension and health funds, and the rest from streaming services to be brought into line with traditional pay by theater production and broadcasting. Unions are also seeking greater regulation of “self-inspection,” which has become the industry standard. Instead of coming to the theater and being recorded, hopeful actors are asked to record themselves, placing the burden on the actors who need to provide recording equipment and find their own scene partners.
Finally, there is the question of AI. A future in which creative workers are replaced by general AI feels closer than ever, and actors may be most at risk. The voice actors are already reporting the match from the AI-generated show. In social media, the support of the entertainment union is strong (as it is in the street), but the video that uses AI voices instead of actors remains viral, without any real controversy. Sandwiched between the WGA and SAG-AFTRA contract negotiations, the DGA sat down with the AMPTP and actually came out with an agreement, which their members voted to approve. (The DGA has only gone on strike once, so this is not unexpected.) Criticism of the deal has focused on the gap in protections it provides for directors whose jobs are diluted by AI.
What happened that led to the SAG-AFTRA strike?
The deadline was on June 30, but the negotiators initially agreed to extend the time. Negotiations until July 12. Video released by the president of SAG-AFTRA Fran Drescher — yes, that Fran Drescher — is to encourage members that the negotiations are going well. For many, it raises concerns that the negotiating team may accept only half of the deal. A letter was then sent by members to SAG-AFTRA leadership, reiterating that the performers were “prepared to strike” and warning that “SAG-AFTRA members may be prepared to make sacrifices that leadership is not.” It was signed by hundreds of members, including Meryl Streep, Jennifer LawrenceAnd Quinta Brunson.
The division between union leadership and rank and file membership is unheard of. In 2021, IATSE, the union representing many behind-the-camera workers, started a labor uprising by voting to authorize strikes. But the protest never happened, while the IATSE negotiating team accepted a firm agreement that, in While it has some benefits, it has been narrowly approved by the members. (Actually, the majority voted against the deal, but in many American institutions, some votes count more than others.) Some members of IATSE felt that their leadership did not represent them well at the time.
The split between members and leaders is the worst, as the labor movement lives or dies on unity. However, SAG-AFTRA leaders seem to be getting back on the same page as their members, and recent news shows that they have sent out a survey card to every member, asking how they feel they can best contribute to the potential path. The last time actors and writers went on strike at the same time was in the 1960s, and they were able to defeat the residual system that helped keep the entertainment industry “middle class” for generations. A similar victory today can help inspire a whole new generation of workers to stand together and demand what they deserve.