United States: Actors’ strike wins wage rises, AI protections

November 17, 2023
SAG-AFTRA strike
SAG-AFTRA members on the picket line during their historic strike. Photo: sagaftra/instagram

The actors’ union reached a tentative agreement on a new three-year contract with Hollywood and television studio bosses in the United States on November 8, ending its historic 118-day strike.

The agreement is still to be ratified over the coming weeks by the 60,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFSTRA).

Thanks to the union’s industrial action, negotiators were able to improve the terms of the contract offered by industry bosses, who bargained via the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP).

The union’s national board voted 86% in favour of the draft agreement at its conference on November 10.

The negotiating team told union members on November 8 that the contract would “enable SAG-AFTRA members from every category to build sustainable careers”.

“Many thousands of performers now and into the future will benefit from this work.”

The proposed contract boosts minimum pay rates, increases residual payments for shows streamed online, introduces residual bonuses for successful streamed shows, and boosts contributions to the union’s health and pension plans.

The union said the contract includes minimum wage rises, with a 7% general wage increase that "breaks the industry pattern".

Actors who perform in a non-speaking role will receive an immediate 11% pay rise. Minimum wages will rise by another 4% in 2024 and by another 3.5% the following year.

Artificial intelligence

The deal also establishes new rules for the use of artificial intelligence (AI), a major source of concern for actors. SAG-AFTRA said it won "informed consent and fair compensation" for the creation and use of "digital replicas of members".

However, Justine Bateman, a film maker and AI adviser, told MSNBC’s Ali Velshi that the agreement does not stop the use of AI, which is what was needed to protect the film industry and jobs.

Bateman said the tentative agreement does not clearly spell out that only human beings can be in and create movies, and that synthetic objects and artificial characters cannot be used in films and TV series to replace human beings. Nor does it rule out projects based on a compilation of actors’ performances from the past.

The AMPTP hailed the agreement as a “new paradigm” saying it gives SAG-AFTRA “the biggest contract-on-contract gains in the history of the union, including the largest increase in minimum wages in the last forty years”.

President Joe Biden hailed the union and the settlement as good for workers and the industry.

Tense negotiations

According to The Los Angeles Times, “The final days of bargaining were filled with drama. Studio chiefs on Friday presented what they called their ‘last, best and final’ offer, which the executives said addressed the guild’s demands. The two sides met Saturday to go over the proposal, and company representatives stressed that they needed movement from SAG-AFTRA to be able to salvage the current television season.

“SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee then spent four days scrutinizing and debating the proposals.

“On Wednesday, after another marathon day of internal discussions among negotiating committee members, studio chiefs gave the union a 5pm Wednesday deadline to deliver an answer. The guild announced its decision 23 minutes before the deadline.”

On Wednesday night Drescher wrote in an Instagram post: “We did it!!!!” and thanked union members “for hanging in and holding out for this historic deal [and] our sister unions for their unrelenting support!”

Crabtree-Ireland told The Hollywood Reporter the negotiating process was lengthy and brutal but necessary to gain the terms that SAG-AFTRA members needed, especially on artificial intelligence.

“It took a long time for us to get the industry to be willing to put the necessary protections in place,” he said.


The SAG-AFTRA strike and solidarity it received from Hollywood writers, nurses, Teamsters and members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees — which represents film set workers — was crucial.

According to Eunice Han, a University of Utah economics professor specialising in labour, “The workers had more bargaining power during these negotiations, so it took time for the companies to realize that they needed to yield more and meet the union’s demands.”

According to the LA Times, in late June, A-list actors “including Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Schumer signed a letter encouraging SAG-AFTRA leaders not to settle for anything less than a ‘transformative deal’. The letter, delivered at a time when SAG-AFTRA’s negotiating committee was struggling for traction in the talks, added pressure on Drescher and Crabtree-Ireland to hold out for considerable gains.”

“I will not cave, and I will not let them down,” Drescher said in October.

After two and a half months of picket lines and bringing the industry to a virtual standstill, the studio bosses signaled they were willing to resume negotiations.

When SAG-AFTRA members walked off the job on July 14, they joined Writers Guild of America (WGA) members who had been on strike since May 2 in pursuit of a new agreement. It was the first time both unions had been on strike at the same time since 1960.

Writers secured their agreement on September 24.

“After sealing that deal, the studios were motivated to resolve the actors’ standoff in an effort to salvage the current television season and next year’s theatrical film slate,” said the LA Times.

Changing industry

“The shift to streaming has disrupted the industry’s decades-old economic model,” said the LA Times.“Netflix and other streaming services typically pay performers upfront, minimizing the residuals that working actors have relied on to sustain themselves between jobs.

“Union leaders entered the strike hoping to claw back some relief for working actors as the industry moves away from the 22-episode season that network TV orders in favor of six- to 13-episode seasons, which are more the norm for streamers.”

The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes clearly had an economic impact, with sales dropping during their industrial campaign. According to Todd Holmes, associate professor of entertainment media management at Cal State Northridge, the strikes caused an “estimated $7 billion in economic damage”.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that since May, more than 45,000 jobs were erased from payrolls in the entertainment and sound recording industries.

Announcing the deal, Drescher said: “I was determined to redefine SAG-AFTRA as not only the largest entertainment union in the world, but the most powerful.

“And now that we have forged the biggest deal in industry history which broke the pattern, established new revenue streams, and passed a historic $1 billion plus dollar deal with the most progressive AI protections ever written, I feel pretty confident in saying this is a paradigm shift of seismic proportions!

“Onward and upwards!”

The actors’ and writers’ victories show the power of a strong union leadership and rank-and-file, and the solidarity won from the public. It inspires other working people to stand up and fight for what they deserve.

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