Nearly one month into a national actors’ strike, Florida performers represented by the Screen Actors Guild — American Federation of Television and Radio Artists rallied at Lake Eola Park in Orlando on Thursday, in solidarity with union members nationwide striking for fair compensation, job protections and improved working conditions.
Union performers including actors, stunt performers, puppeteers, and others represented by the 160,000-member SAG-AFTRA union joined the Writers Guild of America, a separate labor union, on July 14 in the unions’ first joint strike since 1960. TV and film screenwriters represented by the WGA have been on strike since May 2.
“With the advent of subscription and advertising-supported streaming, videos on demand and AI [artificial intelligence], once again we will stand strong in solidarity and demand an equitable contract that reflects the value of our work in those new business models and protects our members from digital exploitation,” Alex Hernandez, a representative of the SAG-AFTRA local in Miami, told a crowd of about 30 gathered in the shade, under a canopy of trees.
The SAG-AFTRA Miami Local covers about 4,000 performers in Florida, Alabama and Puerto Rico, with the bulk of union members based in Florida, the union told Orlando Weekly.
This decision by SAG-AFTRA to strike — supported by 98% of union membership — was prompted by a collapse in negotiations with TV/movie studios and streaming platforms over a new labor contract.
Performers are asking the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — made up of 350 companies, including employers like Disney, Netflix and Amazon — for a fair contract that delivers better pay to keep up with inflation, protection of their images and performances, better scheduling practices, and reimbursement for relocation expenses when employed away from home.
“Any time the business model changes, we’re left in the dust, we’re left in the back,” said Chris Greene, an actor from Orlando, speaking to the crowd of union members on Thursday.
Most of them, he said, aren’t rich. While top actors — household names who have made it out to the picket line, like Adam Sandler, Kerry Washington and Jack Black — can make bank, that’s not representative of their industry as a whole.
According to the union, just 12.7% of its 160,000 members nationwide bring in the minimum amount of income ($26,470) required to qualify for the union’s health insurance.
The same can’t be true for company executives profiting from their labor.
“I cannot believe it, quite frankly, how far apart we are on so many things,” said union president Fran Drescher, lead actress of The Nanny, in an impassioned speech the day of the strike announcement. “How they plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history.”
Performers are also asking for things like guaranteed access to professional stylists on set, equipped with the technology and knowledge to properly style people of diverse skin tones and hair textures.
Carol Bailey, vice president of the SAG-AFTRA Miami local board, said as a Black woman, lacking access to a professional hair stylist on set has caused issues on the job that are unacceptable.
She shared a story of one project she was working on for Disney, as a principal actress, where a white stylist did not know how to style her hair after it had gotten wet.
The stylist panicked, forcing Bailey to style herself (“Give me a blow-dryer, this hair will blow, child”) while the stylist just looked on “in awe.”
Having access to a stylist who can effectively and safely style performers of diverse backgrounds is a demand for equitable treatment, the union says. The AAMP has said they’d ensure this only for acting leads, but not for background actors, per the union.
Every performer on set matters, said Jim Coleman, a longtime actor who’s been on sets with the likes of film stars Sidney Poitier and Burt Lancaster.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re background, principal, voiceover — everything matters,” said Coleman.
Performers say that the advent of artificial intelligence and its use within the entertainment industry also poses a threat to performers’ right to protect their human performances, voices and likenesses from being replaced by AI technology without their consent or compensation.
“It’s a scary time,” said Greene, who’s also founder of the Life of an Actor Organization, which offers mentorship and educational resources for those in the industry.
“Technology is supposed to be a tool, not the tool,” he argued. “You still need human emotion. You still need human values. You still need entertainers to interact with each other because that’s where the gold is at.”
Deadline reports that union members also rallied outside the Disney Resort entrance on July 17 for what the guild described as a “quick photo op,” to show solidarity with other guild members
Bob Iger, CEO of the Walt Disney Co., got flak in mid-July for chiding the union screenwriters and performers, ahead of their decision to join the WGA on strike, arguing the entertainment industry workers were not being “realistic.”
“There he is, sitting in his designer clothes, just got off his private jet, at the ‘billionaires’ camp,’ telling us we’re unrealistic, when he’s making $78,000 — a day!” Drescher said in her trademark raspy voice. “I just want my people to feel respected and honored, and not squeezed out of a livelihood because of this maniacal greed to keep on bolstering the shareholders.”
Florida Rep. Anna Eskamani, who attended the Orlando rally in casual attire, also called Iger out.
“Somebody who makes $78,000 a day had the nerve … to basically diss and dismiss our unions, right?” she said.
On an earnings call Wednesday, Iger did engage in a bit of damage control, vaguely committing to do what he can to settle the strike (which Eskamani acknowledged, adding that maybe, just maybe, he’s seen the light after all).
“I have deep respect and appreciation to how vital they are to the extraordinary creative engine that drives this company and our industry,” Iger said Wednesday. “It is my fervent hope that we can quickly find solutions to the issues that have kept us apart these past few months. And I am personally committed to working toward this result.”
Collectively, the joint strike has essentially shut down the entertainment industry. And, save for an interim agreement reached by the union this week to allow for work on certain projects, there’s currently no end in sight to the massive work stoppage.
Thousands of hotel and hospitality workers in Los Angeles, represented by Unite Here Local 11, are also on strike, and 340,000 UPS workers with the Teamsters just narrowly averted a major work stoppage (for now), with their own historic contract still subject to union membership’s approval.
In short, it’s a hot labor summer.
Representatives from other local labor unions that are not on strike, such as the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees Local 631 and Actors Equity, joined the SAG-AFTRA performers in solidarity on Thursday, along with members of the Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative.
U.S. Congressman Maxwell Frost and a representative from Congressman Darren Soto’s office also stopped by the rally to express their solidarity with the striking performers.
Both Florida Dems have a history of supporting organized labor and pro-labor policies like the Protect the Right to Organize Act, which would strengthen workers’ rights under federal law.
“We find ourselves in the frontlines of a global labor movement,” said Hernandez, the SAG-AFTRA rep.
“We are not alone,” he added. “We are millions of workers across the nation and around the world fighting similar battles against corporate greed who are standing with us in solidarity.”
Greene, the Orlando actor, said their strike isn’t just about better pay for those barely scraping by, it’s about equitable treatment and respect on the job — nothing workers in other industries don’t get or deserve as well.
“We’re not going to get on the screen until they show us the green, and that’s how it’s going to go down,” he said.
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