The story behind how Hollywood’s biggest union began to launch its first strike in four decades is beginning to unfold.
SAG-AFTRA’s decision Thursday to lay off some 160,000 members — from Hollywood stars to background actors — made history, marking the first double strike for both performers and clerks since 1960. The decision would also test an already ailing industry that was already in place. Writers have been barred since the Writers Guild of America withdrew from their labor negotiations on May 2. Beyond the impact of the entertainment business, the 100-day writers’ strike of 2007-2008 cost California’s economy an estimated $2.1 billion—and that double stoppage will no doubt double that amount.
In an interview as the smoke began to clear on Thursday, union chairman Fran Drescher and chief negotiator and national executive Duncan Crabtree-Ireland discussed how they got to this point and the risks involved. Shortly after the SAG-AFTRA press conference, the two discussed with Hollywood Reporter The issues the union and the Alliance of Film and Television Producers agreed upon during negotiations, the issues that divided them and why Drescher believes “the whole world is looking at us now”.
You both sent a video to the SAG-AFTRA members in late June saying that the negotiations so far have been “very productive”. What has changed in the negotiating room between then and now?
Fran Drescher: Well, reality check because it was early, and we thought we were making progress working on more fringe issues. But while we were trying to get into the spiral of our own fears, that was when we started to turn a blind eye. And we’re starting to see that there’s a strange resistance to accommodating our request to change the contract to accommodate the current business model, to honor the contributions of our members so that they make, not even what they gave in 2020, but what they have to be for inflation today and over the next three years. This is just the tip of the iceberg. But, you know, it became clear that there was a great deal of resistance and resentment, like we don’t get our due. Like, we’re not a major contributor to this industry. As if we were scared somehow and it didn’t matter. And there were statements made by the other side that we kept writing on our whiteboards to remind us who these people seemed to be introducing themselves to. And that’s not nice.
What do you think are the biggest sticking points at this juncture? What issues am I still so far apart with about AMPTP?
Drescher: I think the whole world is looking at us now, because people in all walks of life are being replaced by robots. And what is happening here, the eyes of the world see and certainly work in this country. It’s really important that we put up barriers around AI, because it’s going to put people out of work. He’s already putting our members out of work and that’s insane. What do you do? Why do you want to do this? Because it is a little cheaper or a little easier, but it is unreasonable. If you’re doing it at the expense of people’s livelihood… everyone deserves the right to work. I saw a little box running around Santa Monica delivering stuff, and my heart broke because I thought, “He used to be a guy on a bike who made money off of that.” Why is someone fired from work? What’s wrong with these people? It’s not normal.
Crabtree-Ireland: Yes, to Fran’s point, I mean obviously protecting AI is an important issue that we haven’t agreed on yet. Also, just basic minimum salary increases: Their proposal will have our members working for less in 2023 than they were making in real dollar terms in 2020, and that will remain the case for the entire contract term. this is not true. And it’s really outrageous that companies expect our members to do that. Additionally, as Fran spoke, there has been a major business model change in the industry. We had a very reasonable proposal to address that by taking a small percentage of the subscription revenue from streaming. The companies refused to participate in this, and refused to discuss it throughout the course of the negotiations. For 35 days, there was no substantive discussion whatsoever, even though we told them it was a major priority. So there wasn’t the kind of engagement you’d expect from someone who was trying to make a deal.
And where did you all come to an agreement, did you come to temporary agreements with AMPTP?
Crabtree-Ireland: I mean, there are a number of things that we agreed on. One example [is] They agreed to our proposal to add Martin Luther King Day and Juneteenth as holidays in our contract. You know, Martin Luther King Day should have been a holiday a long time ago, and I’m glad they finally let go of the resistance they had to this suggestion in the past. There are some other provisions that we have provisional agreements on that relate to aspects of some of the proposals. For example, we have some tentative agreements about some aspects of self-tape molding and things like that. But there are large, important parts of that where we don’t have agreement. For example, take for example, all the work we’ve done on the self-bar casting proposal — a lot of progress there, except for the fact that they continue to insist that it all has to be based on the honor system. They insist on a clause that says it is not subject to any complaint or arbitration, which means there is no way to enforce it, so agreeing to a self-protective tape that is essentially more like a wish and a hope than a real promise. It really does not suffice.
Where did SAG give ground for the talks? where did you say “Well, we can concede on this very matter?”
Crabtree IrelandA: Well, we’ve withdrawn many of our proposals to which they indicated a lot of resistance. For example, we had a proposal to add additional compensation for theatrical re-releases where the theatrical motion picture, after its entire initial run has finished, is re-released later. It happens, and that makes a lot of money, and our members feel like if they’re a person on one of these projects, they should get some compensation for it. The studios flatly refused and in the interest of trying to move things forward, we withdrew that suggestion. This is just one example of a number of proposals that are moving us in the direction of it. But frankly, those moves in their direction were not appreciated or reciprocated.
Drescher: And getting a 12-day extension is unprecedented in this union. We did it in good faith. They didn’t return anything. They cheated us so they could keep promoting their summer movies for another 12 days. They went behind closed doors. They kept canceling our meetings with them. It was really very frustrating and disheartening.
Last question: Obviously, a double whammy in this industry will have far-reaching effects on many of the people working in the company, who are not party to these contract negotiations. What message would you send to people who are not members of SAG-AFTRA and who will be affected by the double strike?
Drescher: Believe me, this is why we are doing the extension. Because this burdens us. We empathize with everyone and feel what this will do. Many Americans have no more than $500 saved. But how can we continue to move forward in a decade so humiliating and disrespectful? And this is not the direction in which any business takes place [group] In this nation they must act. Someone has to draw the line and get every other workforce behind us, and we’re the best, most likely suspects because we’re reputable people. We get people like you talking about these injustices that happen everywhere. We are just the people you will talk to. We serve a purpose that goes beyond our own interests. Because what is happening here, what is happening now, will have an echo effect. Its tentacles will reach all corners of the earth.
It is very, very important. The digital age is killing us. He handles it in a way that doesn’t have that kind of thoughtfulness or forward thinking – nothing, it’s just out of control. All they are looking for is the prospect of money and their assessment of the future of their business while crying out for poverty now. And it’s like, no one asked us if this was going to be okay. Since we see each show get cut down to maybe six episodes, you know – is this a season now? Excuse me, when you did governessWe did 28 episodes when eyeballs, ad dollars and longevity were expected. Well, that is not the case anymore. The big hit is a limited series of maybe four years, most of which are three years if successful, or pulled in the first 10 years. And how can you make money through it? How to make a living doing this? Most of these people are nerdy actors, they’re hardworking people just trying to put food on the table, pay the mortgage, and put their kids through school. It is crazy that they are so insensitive to the people themselves that they profit from their art. What are they without us?
Crabtree-Ireland: You mentioned the double whammy thing. The last time there was a simultaneous strike between the SAG or AFTRA and the writers’ union was in 1960. It was this strike that led to the creation of a health plan, a pension plan and the creation of residuals in an important way. So sometimes these kinds of strikes are necessary to defend the basic needs of our members. That is why we are there.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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