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Q&A from Fran Drescher on the SAG-AFTRA strike: “The digital age is cannibalizing us”


The story behind how Hollywood’s biggest union came to call its first strike in four decades is beginning to unravel.

SAG-AFTRA’s decision on Thursday to order a work stoppage of some 160,000 members, from Hollywood stars to supporting actors, made history, marking the first double strike by artists and scribes since 1960. The decision will further test a an already limping industry that has starved writers since the Writers Guild of America walked out of its own labor negotiations on May 2. Beyond the impact on the entertainment business, the 100-day writers’ strike of 2007-2008 cost the California economy an estimated $2.1 billion, and this double work stoppage will undoubtedly multiply that amount.

In an interview as the smoke began to clear on Thursday, union president Fran Drescher and chief negotiator and national chief executive Duncan Crabtree-Ireland discussed how they got to this point and what is at stake. Not long after a SAG-AFTRA press conference, the two argued with the hollywood reporter the issues the union and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers agreed to during negotiations, the issues that divided them, and why Drescher believes “the whole world is watching us right now.”

The two sent a video to SAG-AFTRA members in late June saying the negotiations so far have been “extremely productive.” What changed in the bargaining room between then and now?

Frank Drescher: Well, a reality check because that was early on, and we thought we were making progress by working on more peripheral issues. But as we try to get further into the vortex of our worries, that’s when we start to get clogged. And we started to see that there was an odd resistance to accommodating our request to change the contract to accommodate the current business model, to honor the contributions of our members so they don’t earn what they did in 2020, but what they should be doing for the inflation today and for the next three years. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But, you know, it became clear that there was a lot of resistance and resentment, like we didn’t have the right to get our due. Like, we’re not a major contributor to this industry. Like we’re sub- somehow and we don’t matter. And there were statements that were made by the other side that we keep writing on whiteboards to remind us of who these people seem to be. And it’s not nice.

What do you think are the main sticking points right now? What are the issues where you are still far apart with the AMPTP?

Drescher: I think the whole world is looking at us right now because humans in all walks of life are being replaced by robots. And what happens here, the eyes of the world and certainly the work of this country is watching. It’s really important that we put up barriers around artificial intelligence because it’s going to put people out of work. It’s already putting our members out of work and that’s crazy. What are you doing? Why do you want to do this? Because it’s a little cheaper or a little easier, but it’s excessive. If you do it at the expense of people’s livelihoods… Everyone deserves the right to work. I saw a little box running around Santa Monica delivering things and my heart broke because I thought he used to be a bike person who made money doing that. Why put someone out of a job? What happens to these people? It is not normal.

Crabtree-Ireland: Yeah, to Fran’s point, I mean obviously AI protections are a major issue that we still don’t agree on. Also, only basic minimum wage increases: Your proposal would have our members working in 2023 for less than they made in real dollars in 2020, and that would remain the case for the entire term of the contract. That is not right. And it’s really outrageous that companies expect our members to do that. On top of that, as Fran commented, there has been a radical change in the business model of the industry. We had a very reasonable proposal to address that by taking a small percentage of the streaming subscription revenue. The companies refused to participate in that, refused to discuss it throughout the course of the negotiations. For 35 days, there was no substantive discussion, even though we told them it was a key priority. So there really hasn’t been the kind of commitment that you’d expect from someone who was trying to make a deal.

And where did all of you reach an agreement, tentative agreements, with the AMPTP?

Crabtree-Ireland: I mean, there are a number of things that we agreed to. An example [is] They agreed with our proposal to add Martin Luther King Day and June 16 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’ve finally dropped the resistance they’ve had to that proposal in the past. There are some other provisions that we have tentative agreements on that relate to aspects of certain proposals. For example, we have some tentative agreements on some aspects of autocasting and things like that. But there are big and important parts of that that we disagree on. Like, for example, all the work we’ve done on our self-made film casting proposal – a lot of progress there, except for the fact that they continue to insist that everything basically has to be on an honor system. They insist on a provision that says it’s not subject to any grievance or arbitration, which means there’s no way to enforce it, so they accept self-engraved protections that are basically more wish and hope than any real promise. It doesn’t really do the trick.

Where did SAG give ground in the talks? Where did you say, okay, we can compromise on this particular issue?

Crabtree-Ireland: Well, we have withdrawn several of our proposals to which you indicated great resistance. For example, we had a proposal to add additional compensation for theatrical re-releases where a theatrical film, after finishing its entire initial run, is later re-released. That happens, that makes a lot of money, our members feel like if they’re somebody on one of those projects, they should get some compensation for that. The studios flatly refused and in the interest of trying to move things forward, we withdrew that proposal. That is just one example of a series of proposals where we have moved in your direction. But frankly, those moves in his direction weren’t really appreciated or responded to in kind.

Drescher: And getting a 12-day extension is unprecedented in this union. We did it in good faith; They didn’t come back with anything. They tricked us into promoting their summer movies for another 12 days. They went behind closed doors. They kept canceling our meetings with them. It was really very daunting and daunting.

Last question: a double strike in this industry will obviously have a far-reaching impact on many of those who work in the business, who are not part of this contract negotiation. What message do you have for people who are not members of SAG-AFTRA and who will be affected by the double strike?

Drescher: Trust me, that’s why we made the extension. Because this weighs heavily on us. We have compassion for everyone and we feel what this is going to do. Many Americans have no more than $500 saved. But how can we go ahead with a contract that is so dishonorable and so disrespectful? And that’s not the address that any work [group] in this nation should be moving forward. Someone has to draw the line and get all the other workers behind us, and we’re the best, most likely suspects because we’re high-profile people. We get people like you to speak out about these grievances that happen everywhere. We’re just the ones you’ll talk to. And we are serving a purpose beyond our own interests. Because what happens here, what happens now, is going to have a reverberation effect. Its tentacles will reach all corners of the earth.

It is very, very important. The digital age is cannibalizing us. He’s taking control in a way that he doesn’t have the kind of thinking or forward thinking, nothing, he’s just out of control. And all they’re looking at is the money outlook and their assessments of the future of their business as they cry poverty now. And it’s like no one asked us if this was going to be okay. As we see each show comes down to maybe, you know, six episodes, is that a season now? Excuse me, when did I The babysitter, we did 28 episodes when it was based on eyeballs, ad dollars, and longevity. Well, that’s not the case anymore. A big hit is a limited run of maybe four years, most of them are three years if they’re successful or made in the first 10. And how do you make money on that? How do you make a living doing that? Most of these people are official actors, they are hard-working people just trying to put food on the table, pay their mortgage, get their kids to school. It’s crazy that they are so insensitive to the very people who take advantage of their art. What are they without us?

Crabtree-Ireland: Did you mention the double whammy? The last time there was a simultaneous strike by SAG or AFTRA and the Writers Guild was in 1960. That was the strike that led to the creation of the health plan, the pension plan and the constitution of residuals in a significant way. So sometimes these types of strikes are necessary to defend the basic needs that our members have. And that is why we are there.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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