Four simultaneous protests occurred in New York City on Friday, the first day of the SAG-AFTRA strike, with Writers Guild, IATSE, local Democratic Socialists of America members and more from other unions joining in on the picket lines and similar protests occurring in Los Angeles.
Amid beating, hot sun and spurts of rain, picketers rallied in front of the Netflix and Warner Bros. Discovery Offices near Union Square, Amazon and HBO in Hudson Yards, Paramount in Times Square and NBCUniversal at 30 Rock.
Among the hundreds that walked the New York picket lines Friday were Ted Lasso’s Jason Sudeikis, Survival of the Thickest’s Peppermint and Sagan Chen, Numb3rs’ David Krumholtz, Grounded for Life’s Kevin Corrigan, Severance stars Zach Cherry and Jen Tullock, as well as Runaway’s actors Ariela Barer and Clarissa Thibeaux.
At Netflix/WBD alone, picketers saw a brief, but early police presence as officers herded eager actors off parts of the sidewalk and into the barricades, before the line hit play on a curated playlist featuring Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family,” Beyonce’s “Break My Soul” and Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” — which carried through even as picketers had to don ponchos due to the rain.
Top issues for actors out on the picket lines Friday included fair pay, including residuals from streamers, as well as the use of artificial intelligence, which came into some prominence as part of the WGA negotiations and then gained renewed focus Thursday as part of the SAG-AFTRA negotiations.
“The issues that they won’t even discuss are the most important issues, and if we don’t settle them now, if we don’t deal with streaming now, if we don’t deal with AI now, there’s not going to be any turning back. We can’t make that mistake,” said Thelma & Louise and Monarch actress Susan Sarandon, speaking outside the Netflix protest.
“What we are doing is not even asking for what some might call a fair contract, but something that would just at a bare minimum allow people to continue to try to be in the arts professionally,” said Unbelievable’s star Merritt Wever.
Pay was a hot topic for workers in all levels of the field. Speaking from Times Square, where actors and writers were circulating in a barricaded area and receiving support from tourists and even the neighborhood naked cowboy, Chris Henry Coffey, a SAG-AFTRA member who does a lot of guest star appearances for networks and streamers, said he came to the picket line because it’s felt like the contracts have been “going in reverse,” even as his career has advanced.
One issue, in his experience, is that the idea of having a quote or baseline salary does not seem to exist anymore. “I just want to support a new contract. It’s offensive to me that I have been living under a worse wage in 2023 than when I started as an actor in 2000,” Coffey said.
Similarly, Gary Farris, who has been a SAG-AFTRA member since 2008 and has been primarily working as a background actor, says he feels the wages for that position, among many others, have not risen appropriately.
“We’re the workhorses of the industry,” Farris said. “We work like dogs, and you know, they pay us pretty good, but it didn’t meet inflation at all.”
Outside of Netflix, Wever pointed to the discrepancy in her experiences with the linear and streaming models, as one major issue around negotiations for her while Chen, who had to leave the line early to attend a second job they’ve taken on to support themselves, pointed to residuals — a contention point in terms of streamers — as “a big one.”
“What my union did for me decades ago was build into our contract ways that working actors could continue to make a living, and those are not in our current contracts with streamers,” Wever said.
Kelly Klein, a member of SAG-AFTRA, said she attended the picket line in Hudson Yards out of concern for the use of AI and also to speak out about changes to the contract in recent years which have resulted in miniscule residuals, particularly from streamers.
“I get residual checks for cents,” Klein said. “One time my ATM branch wouldn’t even accept it. I had to go to the teller to deposit it, because the machine would not recognize this as money.”
According to Ariela Barer, who had their Marvel show Runaway’s removed from Disney+ earlier this year, the double loss of residuals and one’s own work is difficult.
Background actors were also in the spotlight as part of the negotiations, when Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA, said Thursday that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers had presented them with an AI proposal that would see background performers receive one day of pay for getting a digitally scanned. The studios would be able to use that image from then on, he says.
The AMPTP has since rebutted this claim, saying the assertion made today by the actor’s union leadership “that the digital replicas of background actors may be used in perpetuity with no consent or compensation is false.” Rather, the studios say a digital replica of a background actor is only permissible as part of a motion picture for which that actor is employed and that use requires the actor’s consent and bargaining for the use.
Still, the topic was prevalent on the lines Friday, as background actors such as Jonathan Kaine, who was picketing outside the HBO and Amazon offices in New York, spoke to the need for greater protections around background actors and the fear that the job may be wiped out entirely by AI, in addition to the challenges of working on pay that he says makes it “harder and harder to make a living wage in New york City.”
“Our likeness is our lifeblood in this specific instance. And to give it away, not knowing what it will be used for down the line is folly, in my opinion,” Kaine said.
“Being able to own my perspective and my story is incredibly important. The fact that they think that they can take my face and manipulate it for their own goals — it’s motivated by capitalism and getting back to their vacation home,” Survival of the Thickest’s Chen added from outside Netflix.
While this was the first day of the SAG-AFTRA strike, its members have been a familiar presence on the lines since the WGA began striking on May 2. Patrick Coker, a WGA East strike captain who joined the picket line outside Paramount’s offices in Times Square, said the show of support from unions including SAG-AFTRA, IATSE and more has been heartening. So WGA wanted to return the favor.
“They’ve been with us the whole time. But as a union this is their first day on strike. And we just want to let them know that they’re not in this alone,” Coker said.
The two unions have many similar issues, Coker said, adding that the topic of AI is one that impacts not only the entertainment unions, but unions across all industries.
“The fact that they think that they can take my face and manipulate it for their own goals — it’s motivated by capitalism and getting back to their vacation home,” Chen added. “All I want to do is be out here and be someone that some random kid in the Midwest watching TV is going to be like, ‘Oh, so I can.’”
For How to Blow Up a Pipeline writer Barer, AI contract protections are about ensuring the continuation of working class actors and artists. “I want our likeness to be protected, for us to have agency over our image, our body and where we’re doing. What we’re saying in media and art forever is important,” Barer said.
With WGA and SAG-AFTRA now both striking, Coker said he hoped the two unions would be able to make some headway with the AMPTP, given that having no writers and no actors on set essentially grinds projects to a halt. “I don’t know if [it will resolve] at the same time, but we’ll be able to resolve some issues. So if it works for us, it’ll work for them and vice versa,” he said.
Lauren Patten, a Tony Award winning actor for Jagged Little Pill and a SAG-AFTRA member, has been supporting WGA on the picket lines and said she feels that solidarity between the unions is at “an all-time high.” The two largest issues of concern for Patten in the contract negotiations are the pay structures around streaming and protections against artificial intelligence.
“I think that we’re at an inflection point as a country and that’s being reflected as this enormous industry tries to address having proper respect for all of our work,” Patten said.
As for what she’ll do during the SAG-AFTRA work stoppage, Patten noted that she can continue to work in theater, which is under an Actors Equity contract, but that most artists already are multidisciplinary and have had to find other ways to make money.
“We are, as actors, people who know how to withstand not having a job, it’s a big part of our lives,” Patten said. “And so as far as what to do during the strike, I think we’ll have a lot of solidarity, a lot of resolve and we’ll be able to practice other ways of making our art and will be resilient.”
Hiram Delgado, a SAG member who has also appeared on Broadway in Take Me Out, said he also had plans to return to theater during the strike and had been able to save money during the pandemic, as he was preparing for another Broadway shutdown or something like this strike. Most of his income came from film and TV work, but given the discussions around AI and the current state of the contracts, he’s willing to stick it out for the long term.
“I hope it goes on for as long as it needs to go on so that we get the respect that we deserve, and I don’t know when that will be,” Delgado said.
For many walking the line, studios’ respect for actors is in question following recent comments by Disney’s Bob Iger that the actors’ and writers’ demands were “unrealistic.” According to Barer, who had their Marvel show Runaway’s removed from Disney+ earlier this year “without any warning,” the moves and sentiments by some studios are “devastating.”
“It doesn’t feel great to read those comments, it doesn’t feel great to read that your labor is not appreciated,” they said. “I think that what we were asking for is incredibly realistic, and incredibly important. We’re asking for basic respect for our work.”