Why Actors Are Going on Strike

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Just after midnight on the West Coast, the contracts between the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) expired—meaning that a deal between the two had not been reached. SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee unanimously voted to recommend a strike to its national board, which in turn announced a strike Thursday afternoon.

On June 5, nearly 65,000 of the approximately 160,000 members that make up SAG-AFTRA approved a strike authorization with a 97.91% “yes” vote. The union includes actors, dancers, DJs, puppeteers, recording artists, singers, stunt performers, voiceover artists, and other media professionals.

Two days later, SAG-AFTRA entered negotiations on its agreement with the AMPTP, including Amazon/MGM, Apple, NBCUniversal, Disney/ABC/Fox, Netflix, Paramount/CBS, Sony, and Warner Brothers. On June 30, the contracts between the two were extended, expiring at midnight on Wednesday.

“There has been a sea change in the entertainment industry, from the proliferation of streaming platforms to the recent explosion of generative AI, and at stake is the ability of our members to make a living,” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator, said in a letter about the strike authorization referendum. “We must ensure that new developments in the entertainment industry are not used to devalue or disrespect the performers who bring productions to life.”

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On Tuesday, SAG-AFTRA agreed to AMPTP’s last-minute request for federal mediation, which would bring in a neutral third party to help work toward a compromise. SAG-AFTRA clarified, though, that it would not extend the negotiations for a second time.

“We will not be distracted from negotiating in good faith to secure a fair and just deal by the expiration of our agreement,” the guild said in a press release. “We are committed to the negotiating process and will explore and exhaust every possible opportunity to make a deal, however we are not confident that the employers have any intention of bargaining toward an agreement.”

Among SAG-AFTRA’s demands are increased minimum pay rates, increased streaming residuals (neither of which have kept up with inflation), and improved working conditions. Royalty payments, which are contingent on the number of a show’s reruns, are no longer reliable. Streaming, which has shifted to shorter seasons over longer periods of time, has made less work available to actors. And union members want guarantees from studio and production companies about how, exactly, artificial intelligence will be used—they want to protect their likenesses and make sure they are well compensated when any of their work is used to train AI.

On June 27, more than 300 actors—including Meryl Streep, Quinta Brunson, and Jennifer Lawrence—signed a letter to the SAG-AFTRA Leadership and Negotiating Committee stating that “SAG-AFTRA members may be ready to make sacrifices that leadership is not.”

“We hope you’ve heard the message from us: This is an unprecedented inflection point in our industry, and what might be considered a good deal in any other years is simply not enough,” the letter reads. “We feel that our wages, our craft, our creative freedom, and the power of our union have all been undermined in the last decade. We need to reverse those trajectories.”

Actors Set to Join Writers On Strike As SAG-AFTRA Contract Negotiations Collapse
SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher speaks at a press conference announcing a strike against Hollywood studios on July 13, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.Getty Images—2023 Getty Images

Fran Drescher calls out AMPTP in a fiery speech

The Nanny star Fran Drescher announced the strike in an impassioned speech on Thursday afternoon, saying, “I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us.”

Drescher, president of SAG-AFTRA, noted the impact of AI and streaming on the industry’s business model at the union’s press conference announcing the strike on Thursday afternoon.

“This is a moment of history and is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble,” she said. “We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines and big business who care more about Wall Street than you and your family.”

The union will not accept “incremental changes on a contract that no longer honors what is happening right now with this business model that was foisted upon us,” Drescher said, adding: “What are we doing… moving around furniture on the Titanic? It’s crazy. So the jig is up AMPTP.”

Who is in SAG-AFTRA?

Performers and media professionals become eligible for membership in SAG-AFTRA by completing a full day of union work in a principal or speaking role, completing three days of union work as a background actor, or being employed under an affiliated performers’ union.

Members of a number of affiliated unions—AEA, ACTRA, AGMA or AGVA—are eligible for SAG-AFTRA membership after one year (and one principal contract) under their own union’s jurisdiction.

For projects filmed overseas, U.K. acting union Equity issued a joint statement with SAG-AFTRA on Thursday saying that it “will support SAG-AFTRA and its members by all lawful means.”

“Equity U.K. stands in unwavering solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and its members in their effort to achieve a fair and equitable contract, and for the good of performers working around the world,” the statement read.

However, due to “existing anti-trade union laws,” U.K. actors who are working under contracts governed by Equity are not legally allowed to strike in solidarity with the U.S. union. “SAG-AFTRA members currently working under an Equity U.K. collective bargaining agreement should continue to report to work,” the statement read.

When was the last time SAG-AFTRA went on strike?

SAG-AFTRA has a long history of strikes and boycotts. In 2021, the union barred Donald Trump from ever rejoining because he obstructed the peaceful transfer of power to Joe Biden—and because of his attacks on journalists. (Trump had resigned from the group earlier that month.)

In 2018, SAG-AFTRA announced a strike against the global advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty after the advertising agency stated that it would no longer honor its long-standing contract with the union. Ten months later, the advertising agency agreed to sign SAG-AFTRA’s new commercials contract.

SAG and AFTRA, which merged in 2012, went on strike together for the first time in 2016, against eleven American video game developers and publishers, which became the longest strike within SAG.

In 2000, before they merged, SAG and AFTRA issued a controversial six-month work stoppage over the protocol for paying actors who appear in TV commercials. Twenty years prior, SAG and AFTRA jointly called for a successful boycott against 1980s’ Emmy Awards, striking for an increase in minimum salaries.

How the ongoing writers’ strike factors in

In 1960, SAG went on strike against AMPTP over pay, joining the Writers Guild of America (WGA), which had already been on strike for more than a month with similar demands, largely over pay rates. That marked the first industry-wide strike in Hollywood.

In a historical echo, today, the WGA has been on strike since early May. If SAG-AFTRA’s demands are not met this time around, it will join the WGA on strike, bringing Hollywood to a near standstill. In preparation, SAG-AFTRA has called for volunteers to serve as strike captains, and WGA captains—already on strike at several studios—have offered training from the picket lines.

Read More: How the Writers Strike Will Affect Your Favorite Shows

What this means for movies and TV shows

If SAG-AFTRA members do go on strike, any film or TV production that has not already been halted by the WGA strike will essentially shut down. Overseas productions, in particular, where studios have tried to continue shooting some shows without WGA writer-producers, are likely to feel the impact.

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