At 12:01am PST on November 9, 2023, the 118-day journey for union actors nationwide was officially suspended.
While the longest strike in legacy SAG and now SAG-AFTRA’s history, and the first in 63 years has technically concluded, the official ratification vote does remain along with many questions. Yes, the strike is over, for now. Will the membership vote to approve this contract? Is this the best deal that could have been achieved? Should the union have held on throughout the holiday season until the New Year? And perhaps the most enigmatic question, far beyond the money, technology and terms of this agreement, what effect will a vote to strike and then participating in one have on the non-celebrity actor long-term or the union, itself? Most actors lead with emotions, and this strike has been quite emotional. Yes, it is difficult to calculate the chemistry of any winning team, but there is no question that success has a tangible value on their collective psyche.
Since 12:01am PST on July 14, 2023, there have been many pundits, articles, podcasts and chatter in reference to the 1960 strike. While a parallel to the seminal strike necessity from 1960 can be drawn to 2023, the truth is that the U.S. was in a vastly different era economically, as well as the nation’s opinion of unionism. Nonetheless, the existential threat of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.), the severe rise in inflation pre-COVID to date, and the continued streaming structure of entertainment left SAG-AFTRA members no choice but “to walk out.”
SAG-AFTRA members are approximately 160,000 nationally, but less than 1% would be considered celebrities or wealthy. More often than not the term “working actor” is reserved for those, in any city across the U.S., just trying to make a living wage and qualify for the union’s healthcare. When ‘John-Q’ citizen is informed that only about 13% of actors reach the $26,400 threshold to qualify for their healthcare benefits, the necessity for a strike becomes real: desperate times call for desperate measures.
Of the 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA, more than half statistically really do not work any of the union contracts. Why? Many are considered vanity cardholders who booked one job long ago but just like saying that they’re a member. You also have many actors who reach for fame/fortune but have moved on with their lives or the occasional athlete, musician, dancer, singer or background performer who also once walked with a dream that is now in the rearview mirror, but they pay their minimum dues each year to keep their card. So, when the initial “Pre-Strike Authorization” vote came in with nearly 48% of the entire union’s membership voting and that the vote tally was nearly 98% “yes” even many veterans of the union, like myself, took notice.
From the time the Writer’s Guild (WGA) voted to strike and hit the picket lines on May 2, 2023, the phrase “Hot Labor Summer” began to catch fire. Contract circumstances began to look very bleak for SAG-AFTRA, and it did appear that a strike was eminent, but nonetheless, the question loomed: Will the actors really do it? When the nearly 98% YES vote came in, there was an amazing feeling that raced through the acting community. I can only speak for Los Angeles, as I reside here, but I engaged many of my peers in New York and they felt the same. The whispers of “Are we really gonna do this?” infected every conversation as we joined the WGA out on their picket lines. There was an energy, an enthusiasm, as well as a curiosity about what was possible. Bear in mind, that 63 years is a long damn time. Not one union staff person or member, from our National Executive Director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland nor President Fran Drescher had ever led an actor’s TV/Theatrical contract strike. Yes, there had been a Commercials contract strike in 2000 but this, this included TV/movie STARS.
There are a lot of important first times in all our lives from your first bike ride, swim, kiss, job, learning to drive or paying your own bills. We often coin moments like that around words and phrases such as, “growing up,” “maturing,” “stepping into yourself,”or the more common phrase in 2023, “adulting.” Regardless of the phrase or how that settles within you, that process, those moments, are unmistakably cellular and cathartic. For me, I believe after 35 years of working in this profession that is what began on July 14, 2023 to this union. The union of artists that is SAG-AFTRA took their first long road trip alone with their big boy pants on, and won. Not winning, necessarily in terms of the contract gains, but much more as a metaphorical national theater company. Yes, actors can be self-centered, selfish, narcissistic and all the other unflattering terms for always “checking their look” in the mirror. Actors are one of the most ethnically and professionally-diverse collection of workers in the world.
In addition to being on the 2023 TV/Theatrical negotiating committee, I have also been the L.A. Organizing Committee Chair since 2019. The volunteer committees and structure can also often leave a lot to be desired in terms of what they can or often actually accomplish. However, since I’m such a solution-driven person, I set out to at least alter the history of this one committee since organizing is kinda the entire BASIS for a union. The evolution of what I have witnessed and discovered over the last four years has been incredible. I started out with one set of committee volunteers in 2019 and what the committee is at this moment has been a true metamorphosis. Prior to our pre-strike authorization vote as I chaired each monthly meeting leading into May when the writers halted their contract negotiations, I could FEEL the energy of my younger members, swelling. Were they unsure? Yes. Was there trepidation and fear? Yes. Did they have a ton of protocol questions? Absolutely. Did anyone really truly know what the hell was going to happen? No, but they didn’t care. Let’s GO!
There is a line in the movie Pearl Harbor (circa 2001) by Alec Baldwin: “There’s nothing more powerful than the heart of a volunteer.” Allow me to reiterate the calculation human chemistry on a winning team, especially when it is “David v. Goliath.” When you set aside the A-list stars, the rank and file of SAG-AFTRA members are, and always will be, the omnipotent underdog. But I will tell you now, that the most important element of this strike action goes far beyond the contract terms we’ve collectively bargained. Art imitates life. For decades Hollywood has either created or adapted many stories about the triumphant human spirit, and will, against all odds. What I saw on Wednesday night after the ‘Tentative Agreement’ news hit the streets was a different union. Yes, it is the tangible value of our collective psyche. There is a warrior backbone like the “Eye of the Tiger” in Rocky I’ve never seen before. We are now a national collection of individuals united.
The professional union acting community grew up in a way I never thought possible. An element of that can be attributed to many of the stars and celebrities who walked the picket line with us finally, as well as, simply the exercise of learning to be a strike captain and the shared effort to keep us all safe out on the streets. Ultimately, the reasons over time will not matter, but the fabric of any union is to stand together. Actors, by nature, are inherently a self-contained solo act, even when working artistically on set or stage. Today, while we will never all agree about the contract, the terms, or come what may, we are no longer afraid to RISK going on strike.
Does that mean that SAG-AFTRA will suddenly become a “strike happy” union… uh, no. Strikes are brutally difficult on everyone, every business, and every household. Are the contract terms that we have collectively bargained at this moment deemed worthy of the 118-day strike, I think so, and I think when all is said and done it will overwhelmingly pass. Are there legitimate contract issues we did not achieve, absolutely. Will there be detractors and those who vote “NO”? Without a doubt. Do I personally understand why some actors across the U.S. won’t be happy? Sure. Will we seek to gain more of what we didn’t get next time? You bet your ass we will, and now the studio heads know that going on strike isn’t just poppycock.
I stand with my union brothers and sisters in what has been an excruciating effort. I will also continue to firmly believe that the human value of standing together, as one in solidarity against Goliath at this moment in time, will prove to be just as valuable for the internal strength of SAG-AFTRA members as our contract.
Kevin E. West is a veteran television actor with nearly 70 credits including guest starring on The Righteous Gemstones, Hawaii 5-0, Criminal Minds, Bones, Castle, CSI: Miami, Justified, Leverage, Lost, 24, Desperate Housewives, NCIS, Alias, CSI, and dozens more, as well as a former stand-up comic.
Kevin has been a National speaker since 1991 including: the WGA, SAG-AFTRA, UCLA, and A Date with Hollywood panel (Swedish Film Institute-Stockholm). As the Founder of The Actors’ Network, Kevin is an expert on the ‘business of show business.’ The Actors’ Network is the most endorsed actor’s business organization in the U.S., with consecutive BackStage West “Reader’s Choice” awards (06/07). Alums include Emmy Nominee Masi Oka (Heroes), Chelsey Crisp (Off The Boat), Chris Gorham (Ugly Betty), and Maggie Grace (Taken).
Kevin is considered by many to be the top educator for the Business of Acting. He created, the interview series ActorBizGuru, voted the #1 online educational resource by BackStage West and co-Authored the audio CD, The Actor’s Guide to GETTING THE JOB.