The Power Rangers Set Was a Hotbed of Labor Exploitation

Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was awesome and will live in our hearts forever. Sadly, it was also a completely disastrous nonunion workplace where actors were paid pennies, worked to the ground, homophobically bullied, and nearly set on fire.

The rangers prepare to battle in a scene from the television series Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, circa 1993. (Fox / Getty Images)

In the ’90s, the TV show Mighty Morphin Power Rangers became one of the most profitable children’s franchises in history, reaching millions of viewers and moving huge quantities of action figures. One of the quintessential children’s media properties of the era, the show became nearly synonymous with being a “’90s kid” and continues to hold nostalgic value for millennials.

But from a labor standpoint, the show was a disaster. As will perhaps come as no surprise to onlookers of the current Hollywood writers’ and actors’ strikes, the set was plagued by poor pay and actor mistreatment. The current Writers Guild (WGA) and Screen Actors Guild (SAG-AFTRA) work stoppages invite us to reflect on the workplaces and employment arrangements behind the scenes of television and film entertainment — many of which, as the story of the Power Rangers demonstrates, are marked by bitter labor struggle.

The live-action superhero franchise was brought to America by creators Haim Saban and Shuki Levy under the banner of Saban Entertainment, and premiered on Fox Kids in August of 1993. It borrowed footage heavily from the popular Japanese show Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger, which was a part of the long-running Super Sentai series.

Legions of kids tuned in to watch brightly colored martial arts superheroes battle giant pig monsters and aliens. In 1993, the show captured the highest Nielsen ratings for a network children’s TV show that year. A partnership with Bandai for toy production (based off the company’s existing production lines for Zyuranger in Japan) also proved to be extremely lucrative. The show and its toy line became a huge phenomenon, and by 1995 sales of Power Rangers products made over $1 billion a year.

Meanwhile, Power Rangers actors were severely underpaid, denied royalties and residuals, and subjected to a strenuous work environment under hazardous conditions. They were young, fresh-faced actors working on a nonunion set, and the low-budget production was quick to cut corners and take advantage of their willingness to work for exposure.

Despite having their faces on action figures, many of the original actors quickly found themselves with empty pockets while the production company profited. Attempts to unionize or negotiate contracts led to walk-offs and characters being replaced. The original actors received neither royalties nor compensation for their likenesses being used in merchandising. The show itself was huge, but the actors who made it possible were ultimately left behind.

As Walter Jones, who portrayed Zachary Taylor, the Black Power Ranger, told the Huffington Post in 2014, “They made about a billion dollars in the first year off of merchandising, and when we have toys and parks and video games and comic books and all these things with our likeness, it starts to come into reason that this should be at least union, so it’ll be fair.”

“We weren’t paid a lot, at all. I could have worked the window at McDonalds and probably made the same money the first season,” said Austin St John, who portrayed Jason Lee Scott, the Red Power Ranger. He added, “[Saban] just had absolutely zero conscience about making billions using our faces because it was his idea and he owned it. . . . The hell with everybody else who was helping him make that money.”

Karan Ashley, who portrayed Aisha Campbell, the second Yellow Power Ranger, shared in an interview with a black superhero fan website in 2011 that she was working six days a week, for twelve to fifteen hours a day, on the nonunion production.

Amy Jo Johnson, who portrayed Kimberly Hart, the Pink Power Ranger, told the hosts of a Power Rangers fan podcast in 2012 that actors received about $600 on weeks where they shot two full episodes, and no residuals. In addition to not having a union, some of them also had no agents to represent their financial interests in dealings with management.

Johnson also disclosed that the actors were called into work the morning of a devastating 1994 Los Angeles earthquake. They showed up while the production crew did not, and the episode was not filmed.

Without union protections, by these estimates, actors were working seventy-two to ninety hours a week, potentially for around or less than minimum wage. Absent payment for recurring episodes or merchandizing, they became the faces of a billion-dollar-plus business, but struggled to make ends meet.

In the Huffington Post interview, St John said he did “okay” financially from making appearances — at first. “Once the appearances were over, I pretty much hit rock bottom. That’s when I met the starving actor thing. I had a huge success, at least industry success, but was never paid for it.” He also mentions having to sleep in his car for a period of time. As he described it, “We worked around the damn clock. We worked long, long hard hours on a non-union show. And we’ll just never be paid what we should have been paid.”

Before Saban began the Power Rangers film, the actors received contracts that Jones described as “not great.” There was talk of unionizing and getting representation that didn’t pan out. “Three of us ended up negotiating and three of us stayed,” Jones said. “And eventually what happened is that we just negotiated out of the contracts and moved on.”

During the second season, in the lead-up to the movie, Jones, St John, and Thuy Trang, who portrayed Trini Kwan, the first Yellow Power Ranger, asked for pay raises, which were denied, so they left the show. In the fictional show continuity, new rangers were awkwardly introduced to replace half of the rangers, whom the show’s writers sent suddenly to a “Peace Conference” overseas.

David J. Fielding, who portrayed the Rangers’ mentor Zordon, only received $150 for a day of filming that would eventually go on to be used in around 150 episodes. He was later paid for some voice work, and ultimately made around $1,000 to $1,200 from his work on the show. Again, without proper contracts in place, his face was used in merchandising and in recurring episodes, but he received no residuals or royalties.

The issues of a nonunion environment also transcended pay. David Yost, who portrayed Billy Cranston, the Blue Power Ranger, told Entertainment Weekly in 2010 that he routinely suffered homophobic treatment and slurs on set, which caused him to leave:

The reason that I walked off is that I was called “f—–“ one too many times. I had just heard that several times while working on the show from creators, producers, writers, directors. . . . Continuing to work in an environment like that is really difficult. . . . Basically I just felt like I was continually being told I was not worthy of [being] where I am because I’m a gay person. And I’m not supposed to be an actor. And I’m not a superhero. . . . I was worried I might take my own life. In order for me to get a handle on what was going on, I needed to leave when I left. So that’s sort of why I left the show. 

Yost also says that several of his castmates were pulled into a room and were questioned by management about his sexuality, which made him feel extremely uncomfortable. Hostile and discriminatory work environments such as these are instances in which union representatives can and frequently do intervene.

The set was also physically unsafe. Johnson says that she was almost set on fire during the filming of Power Rangers: The Movie in 1995, when a pyrotechnics stunt went wrong. “It was like this machine and all of the sudden it started smoking,” she told an Australian news website in 2018. “I could see smoke out of the corner of my eyes, I was like ‘what is happening’, and then we realized that the machine was on fire.” She added that incidents like this “on a union set would never happen.”

Johnson wrote in Variety in 2017 that she’s grateful for the chance to have been the Pink Ranger, “despite the fact that this was a non-union television series and I was paid peanuts and almost died a few times because of the makeshift low-budget stunts we performed.”

Earlier this year, Yost told the Guardian, “When we originally filmed, we didn’t have a lot of protections, we didn’t have health insurance.” After Yost suffered a broken nose from a bar fight halfway through shooting season one, Saban “realized ‘we should maybe give these kids a stipend, a certain amount of money that they can apply to getting health insurance.’ That instance woke them up, but unfortunately never woke them up to deal with the union.”

In 1998, SAG issued a statement against Saban, claiming that the company exploited child actors and their parents by refusing to pay union rates and “grossly underpaying performers.” SAG forbade union actors from working on any Saban production or affiliated project.

In 2018, Hasbro acquired the rights to Power Rangers. With the changing of hands, the production became union affiliated for the first time. This year, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: Once & Always was released on Netflix. The film is a thirty-year anniversary special that features Yost, Jones, and other Rangers. The special was filmed under the SAG-AFTRA agreement for independent high-budget subscription video-on-demand programming.

Yost told the Guardian, “I’m so grateful to Hasbro for listening to me, and taking it seriously to do [Once & Always] under the contracts and rules of the Screen Actors Guild Union — that’s the big difference.” Now writers and actors involved in Power Rangers can engage in collective bargaining for better contracts and workplace protections.

Still, while union sets are better for workers than nonunion sets, the strike today shows that even union workplaces have labor issues. SAG actors are currently striking for better pay and contracts, better streaming residuals, and artificial intelligence usage of their likenesses. Unions are not a silver bullet; rather, they’re an opportunity to fight for and possibly win improvement on these issues, whereas actors on nonunion sets like the original Power Rangers lack that opportunity entirely.

Power Rangers was a colorful and inspiring show that holds a special place in many millennials’ hearts. But it was produced, like everything that requires labor, in a workplace. In every industry, from logistics to retail to entertainment, workers need to consolidate power and assert their rights to collectively bargain for better treatment. Otherwise, workers face a race to the bottom, no matter how many action figures are made of them.