New York SAG-AFTRA President Says AMPTP Underestimated Union’s Resolve, Unity During Negotiations (Video)

“Once we got across the table from them and saw what they were sending back to us, we collectively agreed that it was not acceptable,” Ezra Knight tells TheWrap

SAG-AFTRA’s New York president Ezra Knight says the actors’ union “agonized” over the decision to go on strike.

“We agonized over this decision because going on strike is a very difficult decision. But once we got across the table from them and saw what they were sending back to us, we collectively agreed that it was not acceptable,” Knight told TheWrap during a picket at 30 Rockefeller Plaza on Monday. “I think they underestimated our resolve and our unity in the room.”

Since the last SAG-AFTRA strike in 2000, the entertainment industry has completely evolved from a technological standpoint with the rise of streaming.

“Back in 1960, it was movie theaters and three [TV] networks,” SAG-AFTRA New York’s vice president Linda Powell said, referring to the last time there was a double strike with actors and writers. “Now, we’re dealing with the way that streaming has upended the way we work, the way we get paid, the way we get our benefits. So it’s more of an existential time.”

“And that upending means lower wages for acting performers in this industry, which has made that lifestyle almost virtually impossible to maintain,” Knight added. “It’s unsustainable.”

The strike comes after the union’s negotiators failed to reach an agreement in contract talks with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which were extended until July 12 at 11:59 p.m. PT. Powell argued that the 12-day negotiation extension “basically got wasted by the AMPTP.”

“We spent a lot of time sitting in our room waiting for responses the day before the contract was about to end. They call in a federal mediator with a day left. Too little, too late,” she said. “We’re willing to negotiate still, but we were not getting any more movement in the room that we were going to get by sitting there for another week.”

Negotiating committee member Michael Gaston said that SAG was able to secure some things during the extension that it hadn’t already, which will be “very, very difficult for them to give back once we get back to the table.”

“That said, I didn’t have any illusions that it wasn’t going to come to this because I didn’t think that they were particularly serious about making a deal,” he continued. “I don’t think they were particularly serious about us. I don’t think they understood how serious we were.”

The AMPTP fired back in a statement, arguing that the actors’ union has “mischaracterized” the negotiations.

“The deal that SAG-AFTRA walked away from on July 12 is worth more than $1 billion in wage increases, pension & health contributions and residual increases and includes first-of-their-kind protections over its three-year term, including expressly with respect to AI,” the organization said. “The AMPTP’s goal from day one has been to come to a mutually beneficial agreement with SAG-AFTRA. A strike is not the outcome we wanted. For SAG-AFTRA to assert that we have not been responsive to the needs of its membership is disingenuous at best.”

When it comes to the key issues at the heart of SAG-AFTRA’s strike, some of the biggest concerns that Powell and Knight have heard from their members are related to pay, streaming residuals, self tapes and the casting process, and protections against artificial intelligence.

“We’re literally working paycheck to paycheck,” the union’s vice president of Los Angeles Michelle Hurd told TheWrap. “It takes $26,000 to qualify for your health insurance for SAG-AFTRA.”

She noted that a guest star receives a “top of show” rate, which generally could be anywhere between $5,000 to $8,000 an episode.

“Maybe that sounds great. So say I cobble together two or three guest star [appearances] during this year, our audiences sees me on three or four different shows and they’re like, ‘Wow, that actress is working, she’s doing all this stuff.’ [But] by doing that with top of show, I have still not qualified for my health insurance,” she added.

Gaston said that 87% of the union’s membership isn’t meeting the threshold for health insurance. Though he acknowledged that acting is a side hustle for some members of the union, he argued that the the bulk of its members are “doing worse than they were.”

“That’s just not acceptable. Not when the people at Netflix are making hundreds of million dollars over the last five years,” he said. It just doesn’t make any sense. These guys have created a business model without consulting us.”

“We’re dealing with people who do not care about the people who do the work for them,” Gaston added. “We’re dealing with people who couldn’t create a piece of art if it took the rest of their lives and they don’t understand what we actually do.”

When asked how long the strike will last, Hurd emphasized that the ball to reach an agreement is in the AMPTP’s court and hinges on them returning to the negotiating table.

“I hope you saw that article that was put out about the WGA when they were saying let’s wait until they become homeless, they lose their houses and then the WGA will take whatever we present them. What is that? This is 2023 in a time when there’s billions of dollars being made, you say you want to wait for a whole vocation of human beings to go broke and lose their apartments?,” Hurd said. “So these people are thinking they’re going to kick back and have a lovely summer. We’re fighting for our lives here. I don’t know how long it’s going to last. I hope it’s a short one. It could be a long one. But I will tell you, our resolve is strong and we’re not going to come to the table until they are respectfully reviewing our proposals and come to us with a respectful response. So it’s up to the AMPTP, if they want to end this thing right now they can do it.”

In the meantime, Knight hopes that the strike hurts the media companies’ bottom line as much as it’s going to hurt actors.

“It is extreme. It is our last resort,” he said. “But if it hurts their bottom line, that is our message to them: That we matter, that we affect your bottom line.”

The dispute comes as the media sector’s earnings season kicks off this week, with Netflix set to report its quarterly results on Wednesday. Comcast will deliver its quarterly results on July 27, followed by Warner Bros. Discovery on Aug. 4, Paramount Global on Aug. 7 and Disney on Aug. 9.

“Be careful talking out of both sides of your mouth,” Powell warned media executives. “Because if you go over there and tell [shareholders], ‘Look how well we’re doing. We’re looking forward to being profitable next year,’ then don’t come back to us and tell us you don’t have enough money to pay us what we’re worth.”