SAG-AFTRA Brings the Battle against Studios—and AI—to Mass…
BOSTON—The collapse of talks between the Association of Motion Picture & Television Producers and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television & Radio Artists may seem distant. When Fran Drescher, SAG-AFTRA’s president who starred in the 90’s sitcom The Nanny, announced actors would join writers on strike, she was in Los Angeles. The first pickets were there and in New York.
At issue are age-old questions about pay and more modern concerns about artificial intelligence, both of which resonate with all workers. On Wednesday, SAG-AFTRA members in the New England unit rallied here for better pay and for protection from studios seizing their likenesses via AI.
“This strike isn’t just about Hollywood,” Naheem Garcia told the crowd at the Embrace Statue on Boston Common.
The statue is a memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King and his wife Corretta Scott. Garcia noted the civil rights leader’s support for labor. Indeed, King was slain in Memphis while supporting sanitation workers who had gone on strike.
“Hollywood is not the only game in town. Even though we love Hollywood but Hollywood East is here! Right here in New England, right here in Boston and we’re here to fight for our rights,” Garcia told reporters later.
Jessica Maher, executive director of SAG-AFTRA’s New England Unit, told WMP&I in an email that the union represents about 4000 workers. It covers all six New England states except part of Connecticut. Many SAG-AFTRA members, such as commercial actors and journalists, are not on strike. Maher said the strike has impacted about 2500 New England members.
Members live across the region including in Western Massachusetts. Masslive spoke to several affected by the industrial action. Massachusetts’s film tax has become a controversial but popular tax break and brought in dozens of big productions annually.
However, the strikes comes amid a broader resurgence in union support and interest.
“The eyes of the world and particularly the eyes of labor are upon us,” Drescher said last week, condemning the greed of management and Wall Street. “What happens here is important because what is happening to us is happening across all fields of labor.”
While organizing Starbucks and Amazon warehouses have garnered headlines, industries where workers organized long ago have upped the pressure for better wages and conditions, too. Workers at UPS could strike this month. New leadership at the United Auto Workers are preparing members for action should negotiations with the Big Three automakers go sideways.
While he and unions have had their disagreements, President Joe Biden has taken a particular interest in labor, too. He has pressed for pro-worker reforms to labor law. Biden’s first Labor Secretary was former Boston Mayor and union leader Marty Walsh.
The actor’s strike essentially halted so-called “theatrical” production for film and television in the United States. Writers had been on strike since May, but a lot of production had continued without them. Although movies and television are invoke celebrity star power, most SAG-AFTRA members are neither rich nor famous.
While excoriating corporate greed, members has observed that many members barely make $26,000 a year, the cutoff to access the union’s health insurance.
— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) July 18, 2023
The AMPTP, which bargains on behalf of big studios and streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon, has disputed SAG-AFTRA’s characterizations of their last offer. The claim to have offered AI protection and wage increases.
Actors receive wages during production, but they also earn residuals from subsequent airings of a production. Yet, both the business model and the nature of streaming has robbed many actors of this income.
“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,” Drescher said last week in her viral strike speech.
In addition to these residuals, actors won their health benefits after a strike in 1960. Both actors, then led by one Ronald Reagan, and writers had walked off the job that year. That significance is certainly on members’ minds.
The use of AI has become particularly chilling for actors.
Garcia, who is a national representative for the union’s Latino caucus, took pains to pan AI’s impact on actors. Without guardrails, he said, studios could pay him or a background actor for one production. However, they may scan him during filming and using AI, reproduce his likeness again, perhaps indefinitely.
“We’ll make sure you compensate me for what you’re using,” he said. “Don’t get to use me up and throw me away. I think that’s not right. Not right at all.”
Generative AI, which can create some content, arrived last year. With it came fears it could take jobs from both white-collar and creative workers alike. That common anxiety among wager-earners has likely contributed to sympathy for SAG-AFTRA members.
Indeed, it something on the minds of others in labor. Chrissy Lynch, the secretary-treasurer and chief-of-staff for the Massachusetts AFL-CIO said the federation backed actors and writers’ pursuit of a deal. However, in a statement, she told WMP&I this had to be a fair deal that addressed workers’ concerns.
“It is imperative that working people are protected from the insidious impacts of artificial intelligence, and we stand in full support with the workers who are fighting on behalf of all working people to make sure that technological innovation does not erode labor standards,” Lynch said.