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Special Edition: SAG-AFTRA Goes on Strike
An interview with Michelle Hurd of the National Negotiating Committee.
On Thursday, July 13, the Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) officially announced their strike, meaning a full work stoppage for all members effective at 12:01 AM Pacific time on July 14. Negotiations with the AMPTP (the body that represents studios and streamers) broke down after four weeks, and the effects were felt immediately with actors walking off red carpets of highly anticipated summer blockbusters before the strike had even officially begun.
It unfortunately wasn’t surprising to learn that negotiations had disintegrated between SAG and AMPTP. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) has been on strike since May, and seeing AMPTP’s treatment of that union over the past few months didn’t inspire much hope for finalizing a satisfactory deal. In June, SAG members voted to authorize a strike in the event a fair deal—one that protects all members against the rise of artificial intelligence, streaming monoliths, and horribly dwindling salaries for the average worker—could not be reached.
Members of our union recently sent out a letter signed by more than 1,000 actors, myself included, urging the union leaders to stand strong and not waiver on issues like fair pay and residuals (a form of income that actors rely on to make ends meet, especially when between jobs). Though it’s not just concern over fair compensation that has led to the strike but much bigger existential threats like the use of artificial intelligence (AI) which is poised to take jobs away from actors. If this sounds hyperbolic to you, I assure you, it is not; it’s already happening. In the coming weeks, you will likely hear firsthand accounts of AI horror stories that sound ripped from the pages of a George Orwell novel.
The SAG-AFTRA strike comes on the heels of the ongoing WGA strike which has now entered its seventy-fifth day. I recently interviewed writer Eliza Clark about why the WGA is striking and what their strike meant for writers as well as audiences. Many of you here in our community and beyond found that piece to be very informative and helpful in understanding the full scope and weight of this moment. In light of that, I’ve asked my friend, actress, National Vice President of SAG-AFTRA - Los Angeles chapter, and National Negotiating Committee member, Michelle Hurd, to join us for an interview. In today’s newsletter, Michelle and I talk about the significance of this moment for the union, why these negotiations matter now more than ever, and perhaps most importantly, we set the record straight on what the union is actually asking for.
I met Michelle through our political work in TIME’S UP. She is one of the fiercest advocates and strongest women I know. In front of the camera, Michelle has captivated audiences with her work in television shows like Star Trek: Picard, Blindspot, Blue Bloods, and Hawaii Five-0, but behind the scenes Michelle has long been a powerful voice for change in our industry, working on landmark decisions that have helped to redefine industry standards and policies, most especially for women and people of color. As she shares with us here, the stakes could not be higher for the entertainment industry. WGA and SAG-AFTRA are fighting for much more than fair treatment; we’re fighting for protection against a technology that, left unchecked, will become a threat to the very art form itself.
Note: Listening in the Dark: A Place to Be Heard is a subscriber-fueled newsletter from writer and actress Amber Tamblyn. If you love what you’re reading here, consider supporting our community and the work we do to bring you refreshing and illuminating writing by becoming a paid subscriber today.
Amber Tamblyn: Michelle, thank you for giving us some of your time today. I know it’s been a truly crazy twenty-four hours. Can you start by telling people a little bit about who you are and your relationship to SAG-AFTRA?
Michelle Hurd: Good to talk with you, my friend. A bit about me: I'm an actor. I come from an actor's family. I also come from a family of activists, so fighting for what’s right and what’s fair runs in my blood. It's incredibly difficult for me to stay silent when I see injustice, when I see people who are oppressed, who have been marginalized and feel that they have no voice. Having a tiny, little platform as an actor that sometimes, maybe people recognize, if I can utilize that platform to empower people who feel like they have not been seen or heard or fought for, I will. So with that in mind, I got involved in union work. It's one of the most rewarding and challenging kinds of work you can do, because you're not just fighting for yourself, you’re fighting for the many—in our union’s case, more than 160,000 members.
It gives you a really good understanding of what artists are going through all over the world, what workers go through, what laborers go through, and how they can be systemically and systematically neglected, underpaid, and undervalued. It just keeps going and going. As soon as somebody says yes to something that’s just a little less than what they deserve, the people who are paying them say, “Okay, this one took that. Let's spread that out and let's continue to give them all less and less.” What's so egregious about that, especially in the arts, is that artists love doing what we do. We love to tell stories. We love to create ways for people to escape and be transported. The dirty secret is that we would do it for free if everything else in the world was free. But it's not a hobby. It's not something cute or some little thing that we do on the side. This is a profession. This is a true vocation.
I’ve been working for years to create more equitable and safe sets, as have you, and this is actually how you and I first met. We met in 2017 through TIME’S UP which I became involved in after seeing the lack of safeguards for actors when it comes to hyper-exposed work like simulated sex scenes. They had no safeguards, and actors were not being protected. I really wanted to make sure that they had someone in the room fighting for them. What we've been able to do is create the job of intimacy coordinator and have those coordinators on set whenever there's hyper-exposed work. One of the things that people don’t often realize is that these safeguards do more than protect those in front of the camera; crew members can be triggered, background artists can be triggered. It's a huge thing to create a safe set. It's incredibly important.
Amber: Can you give an example of what might make a film or TV set unsafe? What can go on behind the scenes?
Michelle: There are so many things, but here’s one that has been particularly personal for me. I've worked tirelessly for some time now to make sure that there are people—because this is about health, respect, and dignity—in the hair and makeup trailer who are trained to take care of people of color. Because the most insidious thing that I've learned is that when you get a certificate from a cosmetology school, you don't have to know how to do ethnic hair. It's considered a “special skill,” an elected thing. So every single person who walks out of a cosmetology school has only been required to learn about, well, excuse me, but styling white hair, and that's unacceptable. We have Black men who have been literally scarred; they walk around with scars on their faces because people didn't know how to cut their beards. Black women have patches of baldness in their hair where they've been burned by people who didn’t know how to do a Black woman’s hair. It's egregious, so that's one of the things [that I’ve also been working on]. I couldn't help it; my father, along with Maya Angelou, organized something called Matinee for Freedom, which raised funds for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and he marched with Dr. King for many years. That's what I witnessed as a child, so I think it's just in my blood to be an activist.
Amber: I have seen that from you time and time again. You will put your livelihood and your work on the line for the benefit of others and for the benefit of the whole, in support of the change you are working to make. Can you give us an overview of the SAG-AFTRA strike, what is happening right now, and what our union is asking for? How does the Writers Guild of America striking concurrently factor into things?
Michelle: Shows used to air in the fall, a new series or season would premiere, usually comprised of twenty-two episodes. If you were an actor on that show, a twenty-two episode season meant you had nine months of consistent work, and then you would have the summer off. In your time off, you could do whatever, seek out more work, maybe do a play, and then you would return to your series in the fall. Now, we have streaming platforms which the studios and streamers refer to as “new media.” This “new media” is now fifteen years old; it's not new media. This is here. What we have now are short-order projects, ten or thirteen episodes long which take an average of four- to five-months to shoot.
What the streaming platforms do is have you shoot those ten episodes over four or five months, and then they hold that show. They hold it, and they drop it when they feel like it's a good time to drop it. It could be a month after you've finished filming it. It could be six months after. It could be a year after. Then, when they finally decide to premiere a show, they wait to see how it’s received so they can decide if they want to renew the show or cancel it and put money into a different project. Studios can literally hold an actor for one, two, three, even four years before they let the actor know whether that show is going to get picked up again or whether they or their character will be picked up with the show. So, for example, say I did my ten episodes and now those four or five months are over; I’m not allowed to get another series regular job because my contract forbids me from taking other work while they decide what they want to do with the show, when to air it, and whether or not they want to pick it up for another season. If you think about the big picture, this means I can't get a job that might help me get to another level in my acting career because I'm hamstrung. I'm tied to that one project for as long as I’m under contract
Amber: This is so important because there’s this perception out there that all actors are very wealthy, when the reality is, 95% of SAG-AFTRA members do not have the luxury of consistent, promised work.
Michelle: It used to be 95%, now it’s increased to 98%.
Amber: There you go! There's a perception out there that everyone is doing great, that this career choice is lucrative for everyone, when that’s just not true. In reality, most SAG members are worried about making rent, let alone buying a home. I think it’s important we put that into perspective. We're not asking for anything outrageous here. We’re asking to keep the integrity of our work intact and to, at the very least, be able to survive while doing that work.
Michelle: Absolutely. I was so proud that during the press conference on Thursday, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator) and SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher stressed the reality that actors are workers. We're laborers. We're not all rich and famous. We’re 160,000 diverse people encompassing principal and background actors, broadcasters, stunt people, singers, dancers, and more. It's a huge union. And the reality is that we spend the majority of our time unemployed and looking for work.
Now, what's infuriating is that you get a job for one of the streaming platforms, a series regular role, and you're like, “Oh, my God! I did it! I did it! I got a series regular! I'm going to do ten episodes and have steady work!” You do those ten episodes, but because the streaming platform that produces that show owns you while you’re contracted with them, you cannot accept other work from streaming platforms or networks like CBS or ABC. So that’s it. Those four months a year are it. And if you’re not one of the few bigger name actors with higher fee quotes, you cannot make ends meet year round. I’ll give you an example: My husband, [Garret Dillahunt], has a show that he did for Freevee called Sprung. It's going on two-and-a-half years right now, and we don't know if the show is getting picked up. Two-and-a-half years. That was ten episodes, two-and-a-half years ago, and he can’t get another series regular role while he’s under contract with this show. It’s purgatory.
People will often think, “This person must be rich because they're the lead of the show.” And yes, a lead is generally making a good paycheck, but when you get to that level, you’re hit with more expenses than ever before. Now, they’re away from their family, paying rent for their accommodations on location while also continuing to pay for their rent back home, where they actually live, because they're not relocating to New Mexico or overseas or to wherever that show is shooting. Not to mention that actors need to pay their agents 10% of each check and their managers 10-15%, plus entertainment lawyer fees, and, of course, taxes. That doesn’t even include the fees to have a publicist or a business manager. At the end of the day, an actor will walk home with less than half of the income they made for a show.
Preventing actors from working just to hold them indefinitely to a job that may never hire them or a series that may never be picked up is attacking the pockets of working laborers. Apply this concept to any other job: if you were a bank teller and you worked for five months, and then all of a sudden they said, “Okay, you have to pause for two years without pay and without finding another job and then we’ll maybe bring you back in to finish up another five months,” everybody would agree that would be ridiculous. Right?
Well, this is ridiculous. You’d think nobody would do this, except that this is literally what the AMPTP is doing to us right now. What's especially awful about it is that they're trying to enforce the same guidelines that dictated a twenty-two episode, nine month job in a four- to five-month, ten episode short-order season. They’re assuming, “Well, you don't need to get another job. You just did this series.” Again, I'll say this again: 98% of the 160,000 people in SAG-AFTRA are below-the-line workers who are struggling to make rent, to pay for food, to get health insurance, to live, to live. This is unacceptable. Meanwhile, the streaming services are crying broke, saying what we’re asking for is unreasonable when the CEOs of these platforms like Apple, Amazon, Discovery, and Disney+ are literally making combined annual bonuses in the hundreds of millions of dollars. David Zaslav alone made 498 million in the past five years. Make it make sense. You can’t. Because it doesn't. Did you know that the contract the 11,000 members of the WGA asked for was 60 million dollars? 60 million a year to give 11,000 people a livelihood. The few people running the few streaming platforms are making hundreds of millions in salaries and bonuses, and they're telling all of us that we’re asking for too much? Unacceptable.
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Amber: Will you talk a bit about artificial intelligence (AI) and what the concerns are with this rapidly growing technology as it pertains to actors? I, personally, have heard several stories from close friends, their own firsthand accounts of very scary things like studios wanting to take a character an actor played in a previous film or TV show and use AI to recreate it or reuse their likeness in a new project without compensation to the actor and without their explicit consent. Let’s say there was a character I played when I was younger in a TV show, and now years later, the network that produced that show wants to do another season, a reboot of it, but that’s not something I want to do. They could argue that they own my likeness of this character and create an AI version of it, of me—and just go ahead and make the show without actual me. And if this sounds crazy far-fetched, I promise you it is not, and it is happening right now in our industry.
Michelle: It's terrifying. It's terrifying. In actor’s contracts it often says something like, “We give over the right for this production to utilize our likeness in whatever way the show needs,” and that has always, always been in good faith. But now they are abusing that right by trying to use someone’s likeness in perpetuity. I really want people to understand that: it's forever and ever that they can use your likeness without ever giving you one penny or without ever asking your permission. That is unacceptable.
Here's a really clear example: this can happen to any actor, but let’s take a background artist who is doing a commercial. This actor has been scanned to do this commercial, meaning they’ve had digital photos taken and maybe even a small camera test to collect their full body and facial features for the shoot. That advertising agency now has that person's likeness on file, and technically, under contract, they can use it in perpetuity. Now they can recreate you using AI and are allowed to use that likeness in any other production they want. They can just place “you” into a scene digitally as a person in the background whenever they see fit. You could literally be sitting in a movie theater years later, look up at the screen, and see yourself, and you would not get one penny from that use. Do you know how much that one background actor job would pay? 150 bucks. And that’s the only job they will be paid for no matter how many times their likeness is used. If you’re asking yourself, “How can this be? How can a contract allow that?” know that this is what we are fighting against. There is no precedent yet for an issue like this, and we want to set one that protects our actors immediately, before it’s too late.
Amber: What was it like negotiating with AMPTP on behalf of your fellow union members?
Michelle: I'm going to say this: they were quite disrespectful to us in the room. The article that came out on Monday in Variety about the AMPTP requesting a federal mediator because they said SAG-AFTRA wasn't taking negotiations seriously? The negotiating committee found out about that through the press, not AMPTP telling us. As for not taking this seriously? We have been in the room every single day for thirty-five days. The AMPTP took off the holiday weekend, not us. We've been trying tirelessly to come to an agreement. They're the ones who have been condescending to us. They're the ones with the deep, deep pockets, and they just don't want to share what is rightfully ours. Our [SAG-AFTRA] President, Fran Drescher, continually says these streaming platforms have been built up and made their success off the backs of creatives, and she’s right.
Amber: We’re all assuming that, unfortunately, these strikes are going to continue for a while. How can people, especially those outside of the industry, help SAG-AFTRA, the WGA, and all impacted members of this industry during this time? What can people do to support this effort?
Michelle: Here’s a few useful things to help us out:
See us for who we are and what we need. Amplify that, not the lies.
I think one of the biggest things, like I keep saying, is to really understand that the bulk of us, 98% of SAG members, are below the line. Almost 160,000 people are laborers. We’re workers. We hustle like everybody else. We are living from paycheck to paycheck. No one's making millions here, we really aren't. Sure, a small percentage, but that is very, very small. So I would say, see us for who we are: artists who just want to make a living being artists. Please help us amplify the truth, not the lies being spread by AMPTP about what we’re asking for. They are using foul tactics, smear campaigns aimed at making us look like we are greedy people who walked away from a great deal. Nothing could be further than the truth.
Hit them where it hurts—their pockets. Money talks, and so does the lack of it.
I don't want to cut into anyone’s summer fun, but maybe you don't need to go see that movie right away. Maybe you don’t need to keep that subscription to that streaming platform right now. Studios need to start to feel this in their pockets. Send them letters. Tweet at them. Make your feelings and thoughts known.
Donate to the funds helping artists during the strike.
I know it's tight times for everybody, so I completely understand if this is not something you can do, but if you’re able to, donate to the Entertainment Community Fund to help those impacted by the work stoppage make ends meet, to help us with our dues, to help us find health insurance. Every penny helps.
Give us some love, and share our stories and efforts.
If there's an actor that you like, follow them on their socials, because I'm sure they're going to be telling some good stories, some good truths, and we want you to amplify those stories. When you see something that union members have shared on social media about the strike, please share it. Amplify it. Spread the word. Share this interview and these tips for how to support the unions. Share the truth of who we are, our humanity, and why this is so important. AI taking people’s jobs is a concern across industries and has only just begun, and it is a problem we ALL must fight together. We’re all in this together. This is big business trying to crush the little guy, and we can't let that happen. Because at the end of the day, we're just storytellers. If we all think back to the pandemic, especially the beginning during lockdowns but also more or less for the past three years, what is the one thing that we all did? We all reached toward TV and film, we watched stories to bring us back to what we knew, to give us something to hope for, to transport us into some beautiful world that was far away from the crazy pandemic that we found ourselves in.
Art is a uniting force. We are that uniting force. It's incredibly important for us as humans to have that release, that outlet for joy, laughter, tears, emotion, a place where you can see yourself represented. So I would just encourage anybody to donate if you can, to amplify the truths that come out of SAG-AFTRA and WGA, to dispel the lies that the AMPTP is telling, to remember that there's over 160,000 members from broadcasters to background artists to stunt performers, voiceover artists to singers to dancers to actors that are working so hard just to make a basic living under these terrible wages and predatory contracts. Spread the truth, and support us. If you see us on a picket line, honk your horn, step up with us. We encourage you to join us, and fight the good fight, because at the end of the day, I promise you, we are on the right side of history. When we look back in time at this moment, you will see that when you supported SAG-AFTRA and WGA, you supported humanity, the vital importance of real storytelling, and art made by living, breathing human beings.