Thousands of union members braved a beating sun on Tuesday outside Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, Calif., as SAG-AFTRA brought out speakers including Kerry Washington, Martin Sheen and Ron Perlman as well as such labor leaders as Lindsay Dougherty, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland and Joely Fisher as part of its National Day of Solidarity rally.
Burbank police officers, who closed off residential streets in the area, estimated Tuesday’s crowd to be between 1,500-2,000 as organizers SAG-AFTRA expected as many as 5,000 to have attended the event that served as a rallying cry for both the Writers Guild of America and the performers union during their ongoing strikes as well as solidarity for those — including the Teamsters and IATSE — whose contracts are up in 2024.
“The eyes of the world are watching, but more importantly, the American worker is watching. And like us, they are saying ‘Enough.’ Enough to low wages that don’t keep up with inflation. Enough to unsafe work conditions. Enough to dehumanizing technology. Enough to de-valuing our work. Make no mistake, we are at a crossroads. The very existence of our jobs is at stake,” Fisher, SAG-AFTRA’s secretary treasurer, said in her opening remarks. Fisher channeled her half-sister, the late Carrie Fisher, and said it was up to union members to “be the great resistance against the evil empire.”
Tuesday marked the 113th day of the WGA strike and 40th of the SAG-AFTRA strike. While both guilds have some common ground — such as the protections from the use of AI — the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood’s studios and streamers, has offered the former a pattern deal that the Directors Guild of America received earlier this summer. The AMPTP and WGA recently returned to the negotiation table but, as SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Crabtree-Ireland said, talks have been slow. The WGA is also asking for writer-specific protections including mandatory room size and span, while the performers branch is seeking limits of self-tape auditions.
Sheen channeled his character, President Jed Bartlet from The West Wing, in his remarks and encouraged union members to “stick to it like a stamp” in their determination for new Minimum Basic Agreements with the AMPTP. “Let us continue to dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?’” he said to roars from the assembled crowd.
Sheen was one of many cast members from The West Wing to show support for SAG-AFTRA. He was joined by co-stars including Bradley Whitford, Richard Schiff, Allison Janney, Dulé Hill and Josh Malina as the show was repeatedly singled out as an example of a successful broadcast model — seven seasons and 154 episodes — that has given way to a business built on streaming that has upended everything from pay to residuals and the way television and movies are consumed.
“It’s been very clear — and it’s wonderfully inspiring — that these producers way underestimated our resolve,” Whitford said of the AMPTP. “And we’re tired of these producers going to Wall Street and crowing about their extraordinary profits to justify their obscene personal financial rewards — and then turn in to us, the people who create the value of their entire lives and telling us that this business just doesn’t work anymore. You need to pay us.”
Washington, who famously played political fixer Olivia Pope for seven seasons and 124 episodes on ABC’s Scandal, delivered a rousing speech during which she shared her childhood dreams of being an actor and how learning about unions taught her that it was a dream she could fulfill.
“I learned … I could just pursue a career doing what I love to do and I could raise a family and live a life doing that — being paid a fair wage,” she said. “We have come to a point in our history where that is no longer possible. We’ve come to a point in our history where just being a working actor — coming to work every day, devoting oneself to this craft, dedicating oneself for the entertainment and the joy of others — means I can’t make a fair living. It’s not OK. It’s not OK for other people to benefit from our hard work and sweat. It’s not OK for other people to benefit while we work 16-hour days. It’s not OK for other people to benefit when we put our vulnerability and our hearts on the line. It’s not OK for other people to benefit while we do the hard work. That’s not OK.”
Washington, who delivered one of the morning’s most rousing speeches, also stressed the dangers of artificial intelligence in Hollywood and said turning to a fixer — such as President Bartlet or Olivia Pope — wasn’t the solution to solving the town’s labor battle.
“The real way that we create change is standing together. It is not about one person, one for one; it’s about one for all. That we are here for each other. That we are here because we know that unions matter. Not only do we have solidarity within our unions, we have solidarity between our unions,” Washington said. “When somebody tells you that somebody’s got to swoop in and save the day — when you feel like it’s up to one character, an imaginary president, an imaginary fixer — remember: you are the hero of this story. Every single one of you is the hero that is going to make this happen. … We have the potential to transform this industry and we have the potential to save so many other workers. … They think they can come for the artist first, but we’re not going to let them come for us because we’re not going to let them come for anybody. We’re going to protect all workers.”
Perlman, who famously released his own expletive-laden video in response to a report in which an unnamed source claimed the AMPTP wanted writers to lose their homes, addressed corporate mergers — including Warner Bros. Discovery — and accused the studios and streamers of gaslighting both guilds in favor of prioritizing Wall Street.
“The thing is, however much they take will never be enough,” he said. “So what they need to do is make us feel small. Devalue us. Gaslight us with the thought that if we don’t walk in line lockstep we can be replaced because any mother f—er can do what we do. … If they’re claiming that they’re losing money, they just made a f—ed up model, that’s all. Don’t blame me for that.”
WGA West board member Liz Alper drew comparisons between the AMPTP’s refusal to engage on the use of AI and the 100-day 2007-08 writers strike and the studios’ battle over “new media” that has now upended Hollywood and the traditional business models that television was built upon. “Look how that lie has decimated our industry,” she said, acknowledging the mental and physical toll the strike has taken on WGA members. “Writers, we are done being treated like crap by our so-called partners. We have come too far to settle for a contract that does not fix what the studios and streamers have broken.”
Paris Barclay, the former president of the Director’s Guild of America who now serves as its secretary treasurer, said the DGA was “proud” of its contract with the AMPTP and that “everybody has their needs and their needs need to be met — all of them.”
Dougherty, the outspoken second-generation Teamster and head of Local 399, said tech companies like Apple, Amazon and Netflix that have disrupted the industry “need to be taught a very good lesson and that is to not f— with Hollywood labor again.” Dougherty also told attendees to stay strong and do whatever it takes to get a deal. “When they tell us that … our members are going to be homeless, be like Ron Perlman, make a video and scare the piss out of them.”
Crabtree-Ireland, the chief negotiator for SAG-AFTRA, closed out the speeches Tuesday with a message of unity across all of the guilds — as well as those who are pre-union — before delivering recent polling data in which he said more than two-thirds of likely voters support the WGA and SAG-AFTRA. He said he was working closely with the WGA and was “employing every strategy at our disposal to achieve the fair contract that everyone in this fight deserves — and will get.”
The hourlong-rally concluded with Fisher leading attendees in singing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Misérables.
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