What Union Actors Should Know About Strikes

Photo Source: Twentieth Century Fox

For American actors, union membership is considered a badge of validation. Whether it’s SAG-AFTRA or Actors’ Equity, earning your card is considered a rite of passage in the life of a professional actor. However, union membership is not simply a prize; it’s a relationship and an agreement. While the union gives an actor status, legitimacy, and protections, the actor is expected to follow union protocols and act as a booster of the union’s causes, including strikes.

In the past two years, SAG-AFTRA has conducted the longest strike in its history against video game companies and has threatened strikes against the streaming services that circulate animations and a bicoastal advertisement agency that hires actors for commercials.

Below, Backstage answers some questions about what strikes mean for union actors.

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What is a strike and why do unions call them?

Strikes are protests called by leaders of labor unions and enacted by dues-paying union members. Striking is a drastic coordinated campaign of worker activism designed to create a productive, non-violent crisis that cannot be ignored or circumvented by employers. A strike is intended to place the maximum amount of pressure on employers by depriving them of the people they need to make revenue or provide services.

Strike activism—and union activism as a whole—aims to situate employers in a circumstance where they must comply with collaborative workplace demands through collective bargaining—when union representatives negotiate with employers over workplace protocols, benefits, protections, and payments that can be revived every few years.

“Labor unions fight for their members,” SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris recently told Backstage. “It’s our DNA.”

Strikes are designed to apply pressure to employers from two radical angles: internally, by removing employees from a workplace so functions and tasks can no longer be completed and externally, by creating a campaign that wins the support of the public, sheds light on workplace injustices, and intimidates the employer. These angles are designed to motivate the employer to negotiate with the union quickly and not have a drawn-out strike. Further, these angles aim to upend the capitalist structures that inherently benefit employers (bosses) and undermine employees (workers).

What makes actors unions important?

Film, television, Broadway, and touring productions have commercial intentions (i.e. - this is art designed to make money from ticket sales or advertisements). When there’s money to be made, business decisions can be cut-throat. And since acting is gig-based, actors have historically found themselves in a vulnerable position as workers in a bottom-line industry. This vulnerability is amplified by the competitiveness and unconventional nature of the profession. Because there are so many actors in the market, actors can often feel the need to comply with specific workplace demands—even if they’re unfair or unsafe—because they know they can be easily replaced. And since work demands are gig-specific, it can be tough to have a sense of procedure from one project to the next.

Unions were incepted to look out for actors to keep them safe and ensure standards that allow actors to have a dignified living as workers in America. These protections vary from objective workplace safety standards to health care coverage, retirement funds, minimum payments, and residual payments.

What does this mean in terms of strikes? For actors unions to strike effectively, they must recruit in-demand actors who producers wouldn’t be able to make the desired profit without and pressure production companies and producers into collective bargaining agreements. Thus, unions campaign hard to prove their effectiveness to potential members, perpetuate membership status as a desirable qualification for professional actors, and create pressure for actors to join, pay dues, and carry out strikes.

There are 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA and 51,000 members of Actors’ Equity, with SAG-AFTRA considered one of the most powerful unions in the country.

How can a strike affect a union actor?

Strikes only carry weight when employers fear one could happen. Thus, striking can become a dramatic and high-stakes experience, designed to create as much of a negative impact on the employer as possible. When employers fear the effects of strikes, they become more cooperative with workplace demands and strikes become less frequent—which is, ultimately, what unions desire.

However, sometimes strikes are necessary to provoke change and send signals to employers at-large.

When a strike is called, union members are rarely caught off-guard since unions engage in long-term, high-profile activism and action before a strike is called as a last resort. Further, strikes must be approved by a series of checks-and-balances in union structures including a national board, the primary negotiating team, and the relevant membership.  

Members get a say because, ultimately, they’re the foot soldiers who will determine if a strike is successful or not. When strikes are called, actors aren’t allowed to gig for the company (or companies) the union is protesting.

“For me, the most important relationships I have as president are with our members across the country,” said Carteris to Backstage recently. “I am privileged to spend significant time hearing directly from them. Our members’ activism on their own behalf is a key component to further strengthening our contracts and building our union.”

What should union actors be aware of if a strike happens?

When a strike happens, it’s essential to inform yourself on the facts and terms the union is disputing with the employer. Do your research on the reasons for the strike, the proposed terms of improvement, and the employer’s intentions and history with the union. For strikes to be effective, sacrifice is required from union members; it’s vital that you understand the stakes and significance of the terms you’re making a sacrifice for.

For union members, it is sermonized that progress only happens when actors protest in solidarity—and not undercut what they perceive as their financial worth.

Unions will usually have an online strike center that offers easy-to-digest resources, information, updates on the strike, and the rules for how union members should interact with certain companies. Make sure you follow those rules closely; if you don’t support the union’s rules for its members, it could result in consequences like having your membership revoked, being issued a fine, or suspension.

What does it mean to “scab”?

For strikes to be effective, workers protest in solidarity to create an effective crisis for the employer in which there is no solution except through acceptance of the union’s demands. If an employer can hire non-striking workers while others strike, there is not a sufficient crisis for the employer and thus, no justification to comply with a union’s demands. It’s this reality that makes striking a hardball affair with little toleration for workers who don’t stand in solidarity with the union’s efforts.

When a worker “scabs” or is labeled a “scab,” that implies they’re circumventing the protocols and practices of a strike and taking non-union work or are working for companies the union is striking. This is also known as “breaking the line.”

Union philosophy argues that scabs dilute the effectiveness of the crisis a strike is intended to provoke and demean the significance of unified workers. As you can tell, “scab,” is not a pretty term. It’s designed to shame those who provide services for a company that’s being protested. Those who “scab,” though, sometimes feel like they must for a variety of reasons, especially if they’re concerned about losing their job or not being paid during a strike.

Union activists would argue, however, that “scabs” prolong the crisis, undermine the sacrifices of strike action, and unfairly benefit from the sacrifices of those workers who “held the line” and refused to work until the union’s demands were met.

“If you give a producer an opportunity to pay you less, they will,” Lori Hunt, Executive Director of SAG-AFTRA’s Commercials and Corporate/Educational and Non-Broadcast Contracts told Backstage. “You don’t build a career by undercutting yourself and your fellow actors—you value yourself and not cross the picket line."

Because of the degree of personal sacrifice strikes demand of workers, resentments towards “scabs” can turn into long term scars even once a strike has been called off.

How can a union actor participate in a strike?

Union members can support strike causes by participating in protest activities designed to keep members engaged, and build unity and spirit among the striking workers. Just like professional athletes will often attempt to psychologically bluster their opponents with punch-in-the-gut phrases, strike activities are similarly designed to stress employers and build momentum in the union’s favor.

Strike activities can range from picket lines, rallies, and events like a mock bake sale or a giant rat balloon. While strikes can be inconvenient, participation in strike protests can create a sense of bond, connection, and pride between workers in specific industries.

How long do strikes last?

The length of a strike is dependent on many factors: the fortitude (or stubbornness) of the employer, the degree of pressure union members can apply, the intensity of urgency the strike creates, and the support striking workers receive. Often, to help ensure momentum and build up the pressure, other unions will join picket lines as a show of solidarity for the labor movement’s relevance at-large. (SAG-AFTRA’s longest strike happened in 2017 when the union protested video game companies for a year.)

Strikes are potent tools of protest because they not only influence those directly associated with the feuding parties, they can affect consumers, viewers, and non-union workers. The results of labor strike campaigns often benefit workers at large. So whether you have a union card or not, a strike can prove to be an activistic cause to support (or at least pay close attention to) because the impacts are powerful and lasting in an ever changing profession like acting.