Though their demands may be different, the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are taking one of the core tenants of unionization to heart as they continue to strike. They’re sticking together.
“We’ve been sort of calling this phase two of the strike,” Sasha Stewart, a WGA East council member and strike captain told TheWrap this week during a WrapPRO roundtable on union solidarity. “It really feels like the energy levels are back to the beginning”
Stewart noted that members of SAG-AFTRA have been on the WGA picket lines since “day one,” which started months ago on May 2 and joked that their involvement was a “great rehearsal” for what was to come. Though she wishes that SAG-AFTRA had gotten a “fair contract” with the AMPTP, having two Hollywood unions on strike has made organization easier. And that’s not just because the WGA and SAG-AFTRA now get to take turns when it comes to permit requests.
“The Writers Guild has fewer members, so we had to be very strategic about which locations we would show up to,” Stewart said, a fact that’s especially true of WGA East. “We’re not happy that SAG’s on strike. We’re happy that SAG is standing up for their rights. It made it easier to have four locations going at once because there’s enough people to actually show up to all four at once.”
Shari Belafonte, a SAF-AFTRA member who was on the negotiating committee and who’s part of the national board as well as the local Los Angeles board, echoed Stewart’s praise of union solidarity, revealing that she was part of a WGA Universal picket prior to her own strike. She also clarified what exactly it meant for SAG-AFTRA to be in the room for the WGA’s negotiation.
“We’ve been just observing. And I’m sure that that was the case for WGA coming into observe with our negotiations as well,” Belafonte said. “There was no intermingling. Basically, it was just to come in to observe to hear what was being said.”
Typically, when SAG-AFTRA sits down at the negotiating table there are “six or seven” issues to be discussed. This time around, there were 48.
Since the SAG-AFTRA strike started, grievances about residuals and unfair contracts have become common place. But Belafonte was able to put some numbers to those concerns.
“When we were working for the networks, we would get between 22 and 24 episodes a year. People who are getting paid, let’s say, $5000 or even $10,000 an episode,” Belafonte explained. Now, in the era of streaming, typical episode counts have decreased to eight to 10 episodes a season and residuals have largely evaporated for streamers.
Belafonte also broke down the problem of advance pay. “A lot of people get these contracts, and they don’t realize that when their agents negotiate, you’re getting $10,000. You think you’re getting $10,000 and that you’re going to get your residuals afterwards,” Belafonte said. “You don’t realize that $3000 of that is now part of your residuals.”
She noted that the “general public” thinks everyone who’s part of SAG-AFTRA is in the top 4% economically. “That’s just not true. It’s really 86% of our members make less than $26,000 a year, and $26,000 a year is what we need to make in order to cover ourselves for health insurance.”
BK Phillips, Max Goldbaum and Alyson Stover are three SAG-AFTRA members who are part of the above demographic — actors who are just trying to make a living in a career they love.
For Phillips, he didn’t even know he was supposed to be earning residuals until another actor asked him if he was making any. When he realized the residuals had stopped, that was the “shot across the bow.”
“I was already aware of what was going on. But at that point, you put the boots on and hit the streets with the picket lines,” Phillips said, citing “proper pay” as a major reason why he’s braving sweltering temperatures on the picket lines.
For Stover, it comes down to hope for the future. She spent seven years working at Fox and then 12 more working at Sony, making her way up from the bottom rung. After 20 years, she woke up and realized she still wasn’t an actor, the reason she first came out to Los Angeles in 1985.
Since that realization, Stover has embraced her passion for acting and has made a living partially through background roles. That’s why the AMPTP’s proposals around AI — specifically, scanning background actors and using their image in perpetuity while only paying them a day rate — are so alarming to her.
“I’m fighting for the future. This AI is not going away. Some kind of restraints need to be put on it if they want to wipe out a whole category of SAG-AFTRA members,” Stover said. “The background community probably makes up the majority of SAG-AFTRA members.”
For Goldbaum, a SAG-AFTRA member running for a national board seat and for NY local president in the upcoming election, it’s even more basic than that. Goldbaum is fighting for “respect.”
During his time as a background actor, he and his peers have been asked to wear “almost no clothing” while it’s freezing and “tons of layers” in intense heat. He’s witnessed multiple background actors go to the hospital due to heatstroke, and then there’s the food. Goldbaum said the on-set “pecking order” is visible even in the lunch line where other departments are called to eat first and background is often last.
“I remember one time everybody got food poisoning on one day because they gave us rotten hamburgers. They didn’t give that to the rest of the crew because they knew that they were giving us the worst food,” Goldbaum said. “They do that to cut costs. But I also feel like it’s a lack of respect.”
“They try to make it seem like it’s our fault or like we should be grateful for having a job or whatever when it’s really our human rights that they’re violating,” Goldbaum added.
Watch the roundtable above.
For all of TheWrap’s Hollywood strike coverage, click here.