It was never a sure thing that the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) would hold a strike authorization vote, a move that would grant the union’s board of directors the ability to call a strike should negotiations with the studios over a new three-year contract fall apart. The possibility has been a frequent topic of discussion on Writers Guild of America (WGA) picket lines since the writers walked off the job on May 2, but there were reasons for uncertainty.
In comments made to Deadline at a Paramount Pictures WGA picket line last month, SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher seemed to downplay the similarities of the issues facing writers and actors, stating, “I don’t think that what’s very important to writers . . . is the kind of stuff that we’re going after.”
SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher on a possible actors strike: “It’s a very big, complicated conversation,” she tells Deadline outside Paramount Pictures in LA today #WritersStrike pic.twitter.com/lK3QXnY69b
— Deadline Hollywood (@DEADLINE) May 9, 2023
The cautious tone alarmed some SAG-AFTRA members, and they responded by building pressure within the union to hold a strike authorization vote, which would give the union’s leadership the ability to call for its roughly 160,000 members to walk off the job. They noticeably increased their presence on WGA picket lines, and on May 17, the union’s board unanimously voted to recommend holding the vote.
Unlike the WGA, which is now in its second month of a strike, the actors are not particularly prone to striking. While the union struck the video game industry in 2016 and commercial producers in 2000, the union has not struck the film and television industry since a ninety-five-day walkout in 1980 (SAG and AFTRA struck separately at the time, as they only merged in 2012). The union hadn’t even held a strike authorization vote for its TV/Theatricals contract since 1986; that year, membership voted 86.8 percent in favor of authorizing a strike, but an agreement was reached without a work stoppage.
That may not happen this time. As SAG-AFTRA’s bargaining committee enters negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) today over their contract, which expires on June 30, their members have given them an overwhelming mandate to fight. The strike authorization vote returned 97.91 percent of ballots in favor of authorizing a strike, one-upping the nearly unanimous strike authorization vote held by WGA members in April (97.85 percent in favor). Turnout in the SAG-AFTRA vote was 47.69 percent; for perspective, SAG turnout to ratify the last contract in 2020 was 27 percent, with 74 percent of those ballots favoring ratification.
In other words, this is an unprecedented message to the studios: actors are willing to fight and even strike for a fair contract, and they see this as the moment to join with their coworkers in the WGA to win a future better than that which the studios have been pushing.
“The strike authorization votes have been tabulated and the membership joined their elected leadership and negotiating committee in favor of strength and solidarity,” said Drescher in a statement announcing the strike authorization results. “Together we lock elbows and in unity we build a new contract that honors our contributions in this remarkable industry, reflects the new digital and streaming business model and brings ALL our concerns for protections and benefits into the now!”
“As we enter what may be one of the most consequential negotiations in the union’s history, inflation, dwindling residuals due to streaming, and generative AI all threaten actors’ ability to earn a livelihood if our contracts are not adapted to reflect the new realities,” added SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland. “This strike authorization means we enter our negotiations from a position of strength, so that we can deliver the deal our members want and deserve.”
The issues mentioned by Crabtree-Ireland sound similar to those at stake in the WGA strike. The shorter seasons that characterize streaming television have hit WGA members hard, as have streaming’s paltry residual payments compared to those enjoyed before new media came to dominate the industry. Concerns about AI echo those voiced by the WGA, and the members want regulations on the technology’s use in writing. There are also the standard needs: higher rates and improvements to the union’s health, retirement, and pension benefits.
At least one actor-specific issue is the matter of self-tapes, in which actors record their own audition tapes rather than audition in-person for a casting director. The practice has become standard in the pandemic years, and it has saved the studios an estimated $250 million just from not having to pay people to read scenes with an actor during the audition; now actors must enlist their families and friends (often meaning other actors) to do that work for free. It is hard to calculate how much more producers have saved in other costs, from renting space for auditions to assembling lighting and camera equipment. The shift is a boon to the producers, and SAG-AFTRA wants additional regulations on the practice.
Not all of Hollywood is lining up to strike simultaneously: the Directors Guild of America (DGA) is negotiating its own new contract with the AMPTP, and the two sides have just reached a tentative agreement, quashing hopes among WGA members that the directors would break from their past and unite in solidarity with them. Still, this show of unity between SAG-AFTRA and the WGA ratchets up the actors’ leverage at the bargaining table. The prospect of some of the most famous union members in the United States appearing on picket lines beside WGA members, criticizing the studios and shutting down the entire industry, is the stuff of producers’ nightmares. Come July 1, it may be their reality.