Starr-Studded in Strikes

By Elizabeth Croft,  Editor Jingsia Hathorne AGE 14

Unions Stand Together. Original illustration by Emma Vitoria

Unions play a crucial role in positively impacting workers’ lives. Unions, as democratic entities, actively negotiate and uphold fair wages, affordable healthcare, job security, stable schedules and other essential rights. Various professions have established unions to safeguard these job-related benefits, and in the United States, numerous artists have embraced unionization to advocate for improved benefits.

For instance, a motion picture actors’ union was created in 1933 as an attempt to establish actors’ independence from “Hollywood studios and producers.” The Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television Radio and Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is a union representing around 160,000 media professionals, including actors, announcers and broadcast journalists. According to its mission statement, SAG-AFTRA is committed to “negotiating the best wages, working conditions, and health and pension benefits; preserving and expanding members’ work opportunities; vigorously enforcing our contracts; and protecting members against unauthorized use of their work.”

If you’ve been following the news or social media, you’ve likely come across the SAG-AFTRA strike that took place in the United States and wherever films are being produced. The strike began July 14, 2023, and persisted for 118 days before ending on Nov. 9, 2023. The primary cause of the strike, as reported by the New York Times, was an ongoing labor dispute, significantly impacting film productions. High-profile movies such as Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse, Dune: Part Two and Aquaman and the Lost Kingdom were among films affected. 

While the strike had various impacts on such film projects, its primary goal was to secure fair compensation for the work performed and to prevent the predominant use of artificial intelligence (AI) in films at the expense of actors. Many actors, especially those with prominent roles in TV sitcoms like Friends, would receive paychecks each time the show aired after its initial premiere; these are commonly known as residual checks. According to NPR, Kamil McFadden, who starred in the Disney show K.C. Undercover, shared a tweet revealing the residuals he received, with one check as small as $0.01. Another example comes from actor Aaron Paul, who disclosed that he receives no residuals from his show Breaking Bad, regardless of the show’s popularity.

Artificial intelligence has become a valuable resource for studios to avoid paying actors entirely. If an actor had previously worked on a project, they might have been contractually obligated to relinquish their rights to film studios, allowing the use of their faces on screen in subsequent projects without the actor’s consent.

The resolution of the strike was marked by notable changes such as “’above-pattern’ minimum compensation increases, unprecedented provisions for consent and compensation that will protect members from the threat of AI, and … a streaming participation bonus,” per the union’s tentative agreement announcement. Other aspects of the agreement involved pension and health caps being raised, which improve overall healthcare plans. These agreements ended the 118-day strike on Nov. 9, 2023, making history as the longest strike in actors’ union history. 

Unions safeguard the fundamental rights of workers, fostering improved wages, safer work environments, health benefits and more. On the picket line, actor Ike Barinholtz from The Mindy Project emphasized to The Wrap, “This is the fight. We have to keep this industry that we’ve [been] entrusted to be stewards of alive.”

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