SAG-AFTRA Chief Negotiator on Day 40 of Actors Strike: ‘The CEOs Need to Be Involved’

As SAG-AFTRA clocked its 40th day on strike, the union’s chief negotiator has called for leaders of Hollywood’s major studios and streamers to step in to bring the sides to a new deal and get the industry back to work.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s national executive secretary and its chief negotiator, said the union has had outreach from industry insiders who aim to help with basic communication between SAG-AFTRA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers.

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“There is some back-channeling going on but nothing formally from the AMPTP,” Crabtree-Ireland told Variety on Tuesday after the SAG-AFTRA held a Day of Solidarity rally next to the Disney lot in Burbank. The gathering drew several thousand participants to Keystone Street in Burbank, including local labor leaders and members of laborers union LIUNA, the Writers Guild of America, the Directors Guild of America and stars of “The West Wing.”

Crabtree-Ireland said the outreach that will make the biggest difference hasn’t happened yet.

“There are conversations that happen primarily with the goal of getting us back to the table. Because I firmly believe that the CEOs need to be involved in order to get these deals across the finish line, and to really bring a sense of change that’s necessary to make these contracts fair for our members,” he said.

SAG-AFTRA is willing to meet with studio bargaining representatives any time, although Crabtree-Ireland acknowledged that the AMPTP is focused at present on the revived talks with the WGA, which has been on strike since May 2. Crabtree-Ireland also reiterated that SAG-AFTRA is willing to compromise on some of the proposals that were on the table when talks broke down on July 12.

“One of the issues that they are most hung up on is this idea of sharing revenue from streaming. And one of the things that Fran [Drescher] and I said to the CEOs when we talked on July 12 was that this was our starting proposal on the first day of negotiations,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “We had fully expected to have a back and forth with them, and then they just refused to engage on it. And nothing happened for 35 days. We don’t expect that that proposal stays in that exact form to the conclusion of this deal. The principle of sharing revenue from streaming is what’s most important, and the exact mechanics of how that happens, we’re very much open to negotiating. So I hope that message has been delivered, and I hope it resonates with them.”

During the downtime, SAG-AFTRA’s contract negotiating team has had conversations with their WGA counterparts. The unions are aligned on numerous issues, as evidenced by the WGA’s recent request for the union to be involved in regulating the use of artificial intelligence.

“With the Writers Guild, we’ve been talking a lot, both before, during, and before and during our negotiations, and during the strike,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “Philosophically, we’re very much on the same page on AI, and some residuals issues, and we certainly support them on their staffing issues.”

Kerry Washington speaks at the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike at Disney Studios on August 22, 2023 in Burbank, California.
Kerry Washington speaks Aug. 22 at the National Day of Solidarity rally outside Disney

The hourlong rally held on the eastern edge of Disney’s studio lot featured fiery speeches from union leaders including Mike Miller of IATSE and Lindsay Dougherty, lead organizer for IATSE’s Local 399, representing 6,000 Teamsters who work in Hollywood. Both left no doubt that their respective unions are gearing up for tough talks next year. And the American Federation of Musicians, also represented at the rally, is facing an October contract expiration deadline.

“You are all making history right now,” Dougherty said from the makeshift stage erected on the back of a large flatbed truck parked at the intersection of Riverside Drive and Keystone Street (which was shut down for the morning). The WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes have sent the loud and clear message that management “should not fuck with Hollywood labor ever again.”

IATSE came close to calling a strike in the fall 2021 during their last round of contract talks. Miller urged the crowd that braved mid-morning Burbank sun and an outdoor rally with little shade to hang tough in the face of adversity. “If they think they’re going to starve us out, we’ll do a food drive,” he said. “We all know everything worth fighting for is worth fighting for together.”

The rally also featured two prominent actors who are associated with White House-based drama series. Martin Sheen, star of NBC’s “The West Wing,” came out alongside numerous “West Wing” alums including Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford, Josh Malina, Dulé Hill and series creator Aaron Sorkin. Sheen, the seasoned actor who earned an Emmy for his role as President Josiah Bartlet, urged rally-goers to embrace their union “and stick to it like a stamp.”

Joshua Malina, Bradley Whitford, Aaron Sorkin and the cast of The West Wing at the SAG-AFTRA and WGA strike at Disney Studios on August 22, 2023 in Burbank, California.
Cast members of “The West Wing” reunited outside Disney on Aug. 22.

Sheen likened the divide between labor and management to the political polarization that has roiled American culture in recent years. “We are so dangerously divided, and very often we come to getherings like this and we are inspired when we see the effect of unionism and unity,” he said.

Kerry Washington, who played poltical fixer Olivia Pope in ABC’s “Scandal,” reinforced the union’s demand for double-digit pay hikes by asserted that wages have declined so much in real terms that many actors can’t make enough to survive on acting jobs alone.

“It’s not OK,” she said. “The dream of making a living doing what we want to do should not be impossible.”

Actor Ron Perlman, known for his work on FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” and CBS’ “Beauty and the Beast,” brought his typically pugnacious tone to a brief speech peppered with vulgarities. He called on management to give a little to achieve labor peace.

“They somehow feel that they deserve all the toys,” Perlman said. “However much they take, it will never be enough. What they need to do is make us feel small. Devalue you and gaslight us.”

The industry’s struggle with the transition from linear broadcast to streaming should not be solved on the backs of the creative community, he asserted.

“If they’re losing money, they must’ve made a fucked up model. Don’t blame me for that,” he said. He called on the AMPTP to resume negotiations with SAG-AFTRA, and he had a final message for management negotiators: “You motherfuckers better tell us how much you appreciate us for giving you your bottom line.”

Other speakers included actors SAG-AFTRA secretary-treasurer Joely Fisher, actors Sean Astin, Rachel Brosnahan, “West Wing” troupers Richard Schiff and Bradley Whitford, WGA West board member Liz Hsiao Lan Alper, AFM Local 47 president Stephanie O’Keefe and DGA secretary-treasurer Paris Barclay, who is also a member of WGA and SAG-AFTRA.

“I’m a triple threat to those who would rip us off,” Barclay said.

(Pictured top: SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland addresses the National Day of Solidarity rally outside Disney in Burbank, Calif. on Aug. 22.)

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