“We Demand Respect”: Actors Join Writers on Strike, Grinding Film & TV Production to a Halt
Written by GRB on 15/07/2023
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Television and film actors are heading to the picket line today after the national board of the Screen Actors Guild voted unanimously to go on strike. The vote came after talks with a federal mediator aimed at hammering out a new labor contract failed at the 11th hour. More than 160,000 members of the union are taking part in the first major actors’ strike since 1980. The strike comes two-and-a-half months after Hollywood screenwriters also walked off the job. This marks the first time since 1960 that actors and screenwriters have been on strike at the same time. As actors join writers on the picket line, they’re demanding better pay and protections in an era where streaming services dominate and artificial intelligence threatens the livelihood of entertainers.
SAG–AFTRA President Fran Drescher spoke Thursday.
FRAN DRESCHER: What happens here is important, because what’s happening to us is happening across all fields of labor, by means of when employers make Wall Street and greed their priority, and they forget about the essential contributors that make the machine run. …
We are the victims here. We are being victimized by a very greedy entity. I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us. I cannot believe it, quite frankly, how far apart we are on so many things, how they plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right, when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. …
The entire business model has been changed by streaming, digital, AI. This is a moment of history that is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines. …
You cannot change the business model as much as it has changed, and not expect the contract to change, too. We’re not going to keep doing incremental changes on a contract that no longer honors what is happening right now with this business model that was foisted upon us. What are we doing? Moving around furniture on the Titanic? It’s crazy.
So, the jig is up, AMPTP. We stand tall. You have to wake up and smell the coffee. We are labor, and we stand tall. And we demand respect and to be honored for our contribution. You share the wealth, because you cannot exist without us. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That was SAG–AFTRA President Fran Drescher, who’s well known for her role in the 1990s sitcom The Nanny.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major television and film producers, accused the actors’ union of walking away from negotiations. In a statement, AMPTP said its offer included historic pay and residual increases, as well as a, quote, “groundbreaking” AI proposal that protects actors’ digital likenesses.
Well, to talk more about the strike, we’re joined by Shaan Sharma. He’s an actor who’s part of the SAG–AFTRA negotiating committee.
One note of disclosure: Democracy Now! employees are represented by SAG–AFTRA but are covered by a different union contract than actors.
Shaan Sharma is joining us from Salt Lake City, Utah, where he’s been filming the fourth season of The Chosen.
Shaan, welcome to Democracy Now! If you could respond, explain and elaborate the reasons for this strike. What are the demands?
SHAAN SHARMA: Well, first of all, we didn’t ask for this strike. We’ve been negotiating in good faith for over a month. We had a truncated negotiation window to begin with, simply because of the Writers Guild negotiations and then the Directors Guild negotiations, giving us just three weeks. We came in with a very fair package from the very beginning of the process. And it became clear to us pretty quickly that the representatives of our employers were not interested in negotiating with us in the same way, and they were stalling us. We granted an unprecedented 12-day extension to continue to negotiate, which they wasted, canceled meetings, and seems like it was just a ploy to try to promote their summer movies before they knew we would eventually have to go on strike, because there seems to be a concerted effort by these companies to try to break the entertainment unions. DGA did not fight them in the way that the Writers Guild is and now SAG–AFTRA is. And so, they want to impoverish us in order to force us to accept a bad deal.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Shaan Sharma, could you explain the concerns around streaming, as well as artificial intelligence?
SHAAN SHARMA: Well, streaming, of course, this is the first year that streaming became the primary way that people consume their media. And our contracts are built for a very different time, stemming from linear television on broadcast networks and cable. So, there was a relationship between the shows needing to grab audiences and sell advertising, and we would have a participation in kind of a long tail of revenue that is generated by both the initial broadcast of a program and also the syndication of programs. Now, with streaming, they’ve gotten rid of any of those performance-based tails of revenue that we participate in, for a subscription fee that they collect, but we don’t share any part of that revenue. So, we have been squeezed down and shoved out of participating in a major way that our members support themselves financially.
With artificial intelligence, they now have the technology and are fighting to try to alter the proposals we have to protect our members. They’ve tried to reconfigure and rewrite the proposals, that we’re just asking for for basic human right protections, to try to have the right to scan us, own our likeness in perpetuity, including after we’re dead, use us in their movies without any consent, without any compensation to our performers, especially background performers. It’s inhumane. It is dystopian. And it’s very frightening, because we just saw, through the pandemic, that performers help our culture survive through, for example, a once-in-a-generation or once-in-a-lifetime health emergency. And at a time when our value is clearer to the community than ever, it seems our employers want to diminish us more than ever.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, as we mentioned, you know, the last time that writers and directors were on strike was in 1960. At the time, just to give a sense of how much things have changed, of course, there was neither streaming nor artificial intelligence, and Ronald Reagan was the president of SAG, which had not yet merged with AFTRA. At the time, at the end of the strike, both unions had won healthcare benefits, pensions and movie residuals. If you could comment on that and what you’re still hoping may come out of this? When are talks set to resume?
SHAAN SHARMA: Well, we don’t have any talks that are scheduled to resume, because we just declared the strike yesterday. Two nights ago, we sat across from our employers’ representatives, and we said, “We are ready to negotiate in good faith, but you have clearly not been operating in good faith.” There were threats against our members made by their side of the negotiations, including threatening our careers. They lied to the press. They leaked things to the press to violate our media blackout. They insulted children and the rights of children on sets and in their health and pension contributions. It has been unconscionable what we’ve witnessed. It’s like sitting across the table from the sociopathy that seems to be in charge of corporate America today, where, apparently, CEOs can get performance-based bonuses, but employees that make all of that possible do not. And so, it’s frightening, the situation that we’re faced with. So, there’s no current talks that are scheduled.
As for the 1960s, I wouldn’t be an actor today if it wasn’t for the health plan that was established at great cost by the sacrifices of our members in 1960, including them forgoing all of their residuals up until that point to establish the pension and health plans that we enjoy to this day. And that health plan has been gutted by our employers over the last 40 years, to the point where members like the late great Ed Asner, who used to be president of the Screen Actors Guild, he gave up all of his residuals before 1960 to establish the health plan, only for him to be removed from it at the age of 91, when the health plan was forced to make changes because our employers have not improved the employer pension and health contribution caps — the pension and health contribution caps that fund our health plans. So, we are in an existential moment both with AI, but we’re also in an existential moment to the basic rights of healthcare and the ability to pursue what we love and have retirement income after a prosperous career.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Shaan, you mentioned, of course, corporate America and the position of prominent CEOs. Let’s go to Disney CEO Bob Iger, who appeared on CNBC Monday and criticized the actors’ union for calling a strike.
ROBERT IGER: I think it’s very disturbing to me. You know, we’ve talked about disruptive forces on this business and all the challenges we’re facing and the recovery from COVID, which is ongoing. It’s not completely back. This is the worst time in the world to add to that disruption. … There’s a level of expectation that they have that is just not realistic, and they are adding to a set of challenges that this business is already facing that is, quite frankly, very disruptive.
DAVID FABER: So they’re not being realistic?
ROBERT IGER: — and dangerous. No, they’re not.
DAVID FABER: Why not?
ROBERT IGER: I can’t — I can’t — I can’t answer that question.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Disney CEO Rob Iger, who makes $27 million a year. He was speaking from Sun Valley, Idaho, where he’s attending a gathering that has been described as a “summer camp for billionaires.” So, if you could respond to what he says? And also, explain — you know, people have a sense that Hollywood is all about celebrity and enormous sums of money for performers, but I just want to quote what actor Danice Cabanela said on Thursday. She said, “It’s a very, very small percentage of the 160,000-plus-member union that can actually make a living off the work that we do.”
SHAAN SHARMA: That’s correct.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, if you could talk about that? Respond what the Disney CEO said. And then, what, in fact — how many people make a living wage from acting?
SHAAN SHARMA: Yeah, that interview with Bob was incredibly sad for anybody who works in entertainment, and especially those of us who create the work that allows for him to be paid as highly as he is paid. It’s so tone-deaf to think that someone like him, who can, you know, get all the — I think in his contract, he’s going to get a 500% bonus to his base salary based on the performance of Disney stock, whereas the performers that give that company its value, they are refusing to allow us to participate in the revenue that we generate for them.
These companies have engaged in an absolutely reckless spending on programming over the last few years, trying to compete for subscriptions, which we don’t participate in any of that revenue. And now that they’ve overextended themselves and are starting to shift to a more advertising-supported model similar to television, now they’re claiming poverty, simply because Wall Street is not demanding growth, it’s demanding profitability. That is not our fault. We are the employees. Those risks that these companies have taken is on our backs.
And for him to lecture us about being disruptive, they have disrupted the lives of all of our members who are trying to make a living in this industry. Shame on him for saying something like that. As our president said, the reason we have unions is because people do not do the right thing. And as somebody who’s made his career out of entertainment, he should know better than to condescend to the incredible performers that give his company value. So, I don’t really know what else to say about that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Could you talk about the issue of audition pay, which has been required for over 86 years but has never been put into effect?
SHAAN SHARMA: Well, that’s not actually true. In the early days of our union, everybody was under contract. Almost all of our performers were contract players at MGM or Paramount or Disney, etc., which means not only were they paid for their auditions, they were also paid a weekly salary. They were also developed with acting classes, dancing classes, movement, etc., a great comprehensive classical training, because we were assets of these studios.
When the Olivia de Havilland decision challenged those contracts, those contract systems, in what used to be known as the star system, the studio star system, started to end. For independent performers who weren’t under contract, we were entitled to compensation for the creative labor that we put into our auditions. But now, since the studio star system has gone away, virtually none of us are under contract.
The audition pay provisions of our contract ensure that the creative labor that we put into the preproduction process of productions, where we actually interpret the material, help them see the writing in a new way — it leads to changes in the storytelling. Sometimes they’ll rewrite the part, rewrite the script. So, we contribute our intellectual property to the preproduction process, and that was always meant to be compensated for.
But today, we are now forced to carry the burden of the casting process, because they’re no longer doing in-person casting. They’re forcing us to tape ourselves in our own homes, using our friends and family as also free labor for these auditions, and they expect us to do it all without compensation. Our members were not aware that these provisions were in our contract, because we have a contract literacy challenge within our union where our members do not read and are not educated properly about their contracts. We are changing that. But none of that changes the fact that not only are we doing the technical labor that casting used to do, we’re doing the creative labor we’ve always done, and now our friends and family are being treated as free employees for our employers, as well, to read with us for our auditions.
So, audition pay is a very important way that we can inject almost a billion dollars into our working-class members of the union, which, by the way, your previous question, only 12.5% of our members qualify for health insurance. And the qualifying threshold for health insurance is only $26,470. That means 87% of our members do not earn over $26,000 a year. And that’s a shocking thing for the performers, of 170,000-strong performers we have that do most of the TV and film work that is professional that the AMPTP produces.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Thanks so much, Shaan Sharma. Shaan Sharma is an actor and a member of the SAG–AFTRA negotiating committee.
Coming up, Grey Anderson, editor of the new book, Natopolitanism: The Atlantic Alliance Since the Cold War.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: “Dear Whoever” by our previous guest, Shaan Sharma.