SAG-AFTRA Strike — An Existential Battle!

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When the request to be, interviewed by the Pop Culture podcast, was presented to me we were only about a week into the strike. Now,

When the request to be, interviewed by the Pop Culture podcast, was presented to me we were only about a week into the strike. Now, if you do not live in Los Angeles, then please know it was an extremely HOT period of time. Yes, there was a chant rippling across America due to all of the strike actions occurring calling it the, #HotLaborSummer. Yes, indeed it was, but what it really was…was just DAMN hot outside. In just that short amount of time, we already had instances of picketing union members and Strike/Gate captains passing out.

Did you perhaps see pictures of actors with big smiles on social media? Yes. Did it occasionally feel or seem odd to you that the actors were “too happy” to be on strike? Maybe. But what you also have to remember is that we had just all been through COVID. Many people I saw, that were genuinely good long-time friends I had not physically seen in nearly four years. So sure, amongst the acting community, there was a lot of joy and hugs being bandied about in the first 30 days of a 118-day strike action. It was human – it was normal.

Does that mean that “on the ground” we felt happy about going out on strike? NOT by a longshot. Please keep in mind as you listen to this podcast that we commenced negotiations in the last week of May. We had already spent dozens and dozens of hours in a closed room, long days, with proposals and rebuttals and adjustments and votes and more proposal and more rebuttals and more votes. The 2020 negotiations were between seven and eight weeks. We then granted a 12-day extension to the AMPTP (Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers) due to the July 4th Holiday. By the time we officially walked out on them and went on strike we had already put in 6-weeks and there was NO end in sight especially with us going on strike.

I found myself in a special position because of my committee work within SAG-AFTRA. You see, I was already the CHAIR of the L.A. Organizing committee. Therefore, since SAG-AFTRA had not actually had to plan, create or execute a strike in 40 years, no one had any experience. So, from the staff to the volunteers on the line – there was not only a lot of emotion within the ranks, but also a lack of vocational experience. To add further clarity please understand that ORGANIZING, is literally the basis of unionism. Therefore, as the leader of that particular committee in L.A., plus my background of having built the award-winning organization #TheActorsNetwork, I felt a pretty strong sense of responsibility to assist my peers as well as the actual union staff as much as I possibly could to ensure safety, humility and mutual respect out on the picket lines.

As you may know, L.A. is a traffic-geographical nightmare, especially during the week and daytime. Well, we didn’t picket on the weekends because you’re seeking visibility and disruption and all of the SEVEN studio locations for which we chose to picket: Disney, Warner Brothers, Netflix, Sony, Amazon and FOX. Skipping Universal was a total bummer but they pulled some sidewalk construction crap on us and it simply wasn’t safe. Know that the strike effort was simultaneous throughout the U.S., especially in cities like Chicago, Atlanta and New York, they just have tremendously more efficient public transportation than Los Angeles. 

One of the more common statements I consistently got were all of these younger union members, which I loved for the member awareness aspect, were so many members who said to me: “hey man, how do you get on the negotiating committee, I think that would be fun.” Oh boy! I do hope you listen to the podcast at the end of this blog post because I want you to hear how difficult this was being “in the room” and responsible in ways for the fate of 160,000 of my peers. Contract negotiations are uh, how do you say, NOT fun.” It’s hard to grasp the number of pages to read, proposals to understand, numbers to calculate and concepts to clarify and codify plus all of the questions and the lawyers with so many different talented artists to represent from stunts to background to dancers and singers along with all of the actors, it is overwhelming to be “in that room.”

Now, if you happen to be a union member reading this and you really do wish to get involved, then please do. Nothing about this post is meant to scare or push you away at all. Just please remember that ALL union service by its members, is volunteerism. From our current President, Fran Drescher, all the way down to the newest person on a committee in a mid or small market like up in New England…we GIVE our time for free. If you carry an active union card, you cannot be also paid staff, at the same time so do bear that in mind.

What is being in that room like? Well, first, know that out of 44 people many of whom live in other parts of the country the conversation is a hybrid split being “in the room” or “on the zoom.” Yeah, I made it rhyme on purpose – cuz I’m a goofball. Once again, think about that time you went to summer camp or tried out and got on a team or better yet tried to PLAN A WEDDING. There is an old cliché which is very apropos: “too many chefs in the kitchen.” Now, allow me to frame that properly, because it doesn’t mean we’re always arguing about the same contract point but it does mean that the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee is filled with people who have worked the contract, a lot. There are 44 levels of experience, desires, issues, ideas and strategies that have to be discussed and it is both important, necessary and very exhausting all at once.

In addition to that, when you think about wanting to be “in the room” also bear in mind that this negotiation, and likely most in the future, will require a longer list of NEEDS than in the past. For example, in 2020, I think by the time we whittled the package down it was about 22-ish contract items we were negotiating. For historical purposes know that 22 is considered a fairly high number. Now, in 2023, we had 49 BUT I can promise you the way our staff put each contract negotiation item together, in truth it was more like 150. This was the largest, most aggressive, and by far the most economically vast negotiation package in SAG-AFTRA history. Yes, I WANT you to want to be in that room someday but it is all about business, not art.

Please know that if you click below to listen you will be leaving the Actor Business BLOG.

Podcast Notes from Christina Birro (Interviewer): 364: The actors strike, an existential battle! On July 14th, more than 160,000 actors joined the screenwriters, on strike since May, for the first dual strike since the 1960s. We are joined by Kevin E. West, veteran TV actor with roles on shows including The Righteous Gemstones Criminal Minds, Bones, Lost, CSI, and more), member of the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee & veteran actor (Lost, Criminal Minds, Bones), author, and founder of The Actor’s Network. Mr West takes us behind the scenes of the negotiations and talks about what is at stake in what the actors & writers are calling “an existential battle”

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Kevin E. West