On Tuesday, November 5, the SAG-AFTRA members approved the new TV/Theatrical contract by a vote of 78.33% to 21.67% with 38.15% returning ballots, which is more than 55,000 votes cast. After a historic 118-day strike action, the Negotiating Committee and National Board voted, and the nationwide membership of actors have finally spoken.
And yet, over the last eight days, there have been multiple reactions from peers, members of sister unions as well as peeps outside of the entertainment sphere with regards to the shameful “turnout percentage.” While I personally understand this, allow me to offer some SAG-AFTRA perspective into voting records, before discussing what the aftermath of the new deal might be.
Yes, even an uninvolved union actor, much less a non-industry person or a member of IATSE, could view 38.15% after an 118-day strike and think…”What the actual F?” And yet, in 2020, the turnout was approximately 27%, and in 2017, the turnout was 15%. (Ugh, how awful!)
Yes, there are logical reasons why. Still, it’s difficult to convince anyone that 38.15% is actually really strong. What you’re likely not considering is that we’re a national union with multiple types of performers and over 50% of the membership NEVER works anymore. That reality can seem silly, but whenever and however you once earn your card, many “former actors,” who have moved on with their lives, do not want to give up their card. We call this a “vanity cardholder.”
When you automatically remove 50%+ from the voting pool, now you’re down to maybe 80,000 members. Also, bear in mind that only approximately 13% of SAG-AFTRA members annually qualify for health insurance benefits. When you think of only 13% getting health benefits, you should note that three times that amount just voted. That is solid. Plus, when you bring the entire membership down to 80,000 and nearly 55,000 of those actually voted, it is a strong number. If only our national political votes got that high of a turnout every 2 years, right? So, going forward, know this was a legitimately high turnout for the union.
While there were many significant gains in several unattended standard aspects of the contract, a vast array of needs still remain. Couple that with the brand new A.I. provisions and this “Bonus Fund,” and it makes for quite the jambalaya of who the hell knows? Will SAG-AFTRA need to hire more staff? Very likely. Will the union need to perhaps have a larger staff of Silicon Valley type of lawyers? Perhaps. Is it now logical for SAG-AFTRA to engage A.I. themselves and use that technology to assist in tracking studio-network-producer potential abuse of our new contract provisions as it pertains to A.I.? Abso-FREAKIN-lutely. Either way, there was never a doubt that this moment in time is both historic and a crossing-over point into a new era. The concept of moving pictures, filmmaking and the non-star human performer, plus their compensation, faces a new reality.
Just since December 5, we’ve seen deals amongst the streamers for bundling their services. More platforms will have ads, as we continue to move closer to what looks like normal television, but on a streaming service. Indeed, what is old, is 100% new again and called F.A.S.T. (Free Ad Supported Television). Yep, it is here, and it is not going to slow down any time soon. Tossing a little alcohol into some of our post-negotiation wounds, we’ve also seen some of those pesky Studio CEOs get brand new multi-million-dollar contracts. We literally had 10-15 smaller KEY items in our negotiations that they REFUSED to agree to that actually cost the AMPTP companies LESS over three years than the damn salaries each of these CEOs just got annually. So sure, there are very valid reasons for the “No vote” contingency within SAG-AFTRA to be pissed. My only hope is that they remain that way but channel it into constructive ways to garner solutions to the fear and changes.
The challenge over the next 2.5 years until the next negotiations begin in 2026 is likely to be the nearly 22% dissenting voice and the reason for it: A.I. fear. As said before, do not get me wrong, the A.I. fear is both real, valid and will remain an elephant in the room for the foreseeable future. While I cannot say for sure, I would venture a guess that a high-percentage of the 22% of the “No vote” was based in Los Angeles. As a solutions-oriented professional I see the true aftermath of this contract cycle residing in three areas: 1.) How engaged angry members remain in the long term, 2.) How much union actors finally drop their fear of retaliation and actually file union claims against contract violations, and 3.) Finally address the REAL elephant in the room that has been there for decades; why the A++Listers who are also TOP executive producers seemingly never bother to truly HELP the rest of us win the negotiations fully using their massive leverage.
Indeed, there was a large and loud dissenting voice throughout the 3-week period between the National Board vote and the member voting deadline. Again, you may not have seen or heard it much if you’re not really on any social media with people in L.A., but if you are, trust me, it was loud.
To my first point above, know that I see your dissent, I hear your rage, I feel your emotion and the desire to “do better” or “why can’t we have blah blah?,” and I raise you, professional responsibility. How about we start with arriving to the set 15-20 minutes earlier than you ever have before and actually READ your work contract without blindly initialing all of the checkboxes, so you can rush off to have a breakfast burrito and chat with other actors. If you’re not proficient about the actual legal construct of the union – how it works – called “governance,” then maybe learn it now. Solutions to any problem require basic structural knowledge of the thing that’s broken.
Also, consider taking all of the dissenting points you made via social media, and write them out into a nice clean list as a reference for yourself and others to see, and go get involved on a committee or two? And lastly, ensure that your agent and/or manager KNOW the key contract points as well as you do.
Per my second aftermath point above regarding filing claims we have to force CHANGE upon ourselves. For decades, we’ve had provisions to “get paid” if they hold us too long on an in-person audition, and yet so many of us have continually failed to SIGN-IN and SIGN-OUT for fear of retaliation by the casting offices for their lack of honoring our contract. The concept of this NEEDS to stop, today, because we, as a professional community, must realize that our contract provisions have nothing to do with casting. If or when a casting office fails to properly honor one of our contract provisions, the ultimate responsibility is actually on the production. When you file a complaint, the production gets dinged and then THEY jump on the backs of their employee, also known as the casting directors. Yes, I fully understand that we tend to view casting as our entry point, but when it comes to our negotiated contract provisions the studios-networks-producers, aka your employers, are on the hook. Filing claims, to thwart fear of A.I. and our new Self-Tape provisions, needs to be a regular action.
And my final point, which is ironically the most important one, our A++ List Stars. Why? Well, The Screen Actors Guild didn’t become a union in 1933 because of non-stars, but rather, due to the top, important performers. While certainly we’ve come a long way in how an A-listers CAN be defined the truth is, they still command almost all of the power. You may view someone as a celebrity or a star, but what is the true definition of their professional clout at the MOMENT of negotiation, or in this case, during a 118-day strike? There are terrific B+, A-, A, and A+ stars who got out, spoke at rallies, walked the picket lines and spread solidarity on social media platforms. Remember that initial “Letter of Solidarity” that went out, signed by approximately 3600 actors, you might know. Awesome, right? Except, how many of those wield real power, versus Iger-Sarandos-Langley-Zazlav?
The cold hard reality, at least for me, in the aftermath of our BILLION-dollar contract and a 118-day strike action, lies in those who could help, even think or feel they’ve offered help, but yet do not really take that one extra step…that WOULD help. For as long as I have been a union performer, the LACK of the top A++Listers true usage of their leverage has ALWAYS been absent. Yes, did some top stars donate money to the SAG Foundation and Entertainment Community Fund? Absolutely, and that is both needed, and appreciated. But be clear, that has zero to do with the outcome of a negotiation.
Mr. George Clooney and others offered 150 million or so to “help out” our pension fund, but the fact is that you simply cannot legally make such a donation. So money was offered – but how does that help a 3-year contract negotiation? It doesn’t. It just winds up feeling like a payoff to silence the restless, angry, little guys – the rank ‘n file. “Get away from me kid ya bother me.” Stars like Clooney, Johansson, Tyler Perry, Streep, De Niro, Affleck and many other ALL have the power to call and PRESS the CEOs to make the right deal, but instead, they pressed us to “close the deal” that isn’t done.
Be crystal clear, my fellow union thespians, as in 1933 until the day comes that those who spend time on private jets with the very conglomerate CEOs we negotiate against TRULY step off of those jets, and come stand right beside us in the fight – we will NEVER get all that we could, need or deserve. They can all negotiate A.I. provisions and all other contract elements to protect and guarantee themselves peace of mind. Yet, when the chips were down on the first strike action since in 43 years, did they point their canons of CLOUT directly at their CEO pals? No, they did not, for if they had the voices of dissent would likely not have been necessary.
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. You can read more of Kevin’s “The Acting Biz” columns here.