“It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
On May 1 I attended a rally in Bryant Park that would prove to be the beginning of a long, hard fight to save our unions. That was the day the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists went out on strike over our commercial contract. It turned out to be the longest strike in the history of our unions.
Now, many didn’t see it as a threat to the lives of thousands of people, but that’s what it was. It was never just about one contract. There was never a doubt in my mind that the producers intended to break our unions. Attempting to take away our residuals for network commercials and refusing to consider increases for cable television were blatant attacks on the gains won over many years and many previous contracts. Denying us jurisdiction over the internet, inarguably the next and most profitable selling tool, was a clear indication that they had no intention of working toward a “fair and equitable” contract.
Since the commercial contract contributes more than 30 percent to our pension and welfare, breaking it would have meant the eventual downfall of our unions. And eliminating residuals for network commercials (a system that compensates the performer each time a spot is aired) would have seriously affected the livelihoods of the actors and their families, who rely on this income to survive. It would eventually have turned our careers into hobbies.
The Joint Policy Committee (JPC), who represented the Association of National Advertisers and the American Association of Advertising Agencies, used every tactic available to them to divide our membership and destroy our unions. The advertisers financially support the media, so it was a constant uphill battle for us to get any coverage in the press. They even resorted to printing misinformation and accusations in the trade papers, in an effort to influence nonunion actors as well as union members.
As actors we are insular beings: ideally in touch with our environment, but able to disassociate when it becomes intrusive on our careers. But for nearly six months, disassociation from the occurrences around me was the furthest thing from my mind. As a member of the Strike Task Force, I was in the thick of it.
For the first two weeks of the strike I went out on the line to picket and then into the office to phone-bank. It was during one of those phone sessions that I was recruited to work with the 80-Hour Program. One of our members, Sara Krieger, adapted a program to appeal to the nonunion actors who were auditioning and taking commercial jobs during the strike and bring them into the union. The idea was to dry up the talent pool and bring the strike to a rapid end. Unfortunately, it didn’t end as quickly as we hoped. However, between the actors walking off the sets and the aggressive, imaginative tactics of those organizing and running the shoot busts, we were very successful in shutting down commercial after commercial.
It was amazing to see a group of people – many of whom were foreign to the inner workings of any office, let alone a strike headquarters – pull together and develop a successful campaign against some of the most powerful companies in the world: Coca Cola, Nike and Proctor & Gamble, to name just a few. We’re used to 5 a.m. calls – but meeting a van at 3 a.m. to make our presence known on the site of a commercial shoot? Or walking a picket line from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. in the heat of summer? They didn’t teach us that in acting school!
Still, through all the 12-hour-plus days and missed “down time,” the urgency of protecting our right to fair pay, good working conditions and all the other benefits a union attains and attends to kept me energized and focused, although an occasional daydream of sun and sandy beaches did creep in from time to time.
SOLIDARITY WAS CRUCIAL
That we became a cohesive fighting machine is a testament to our collective strength, but also to the generosity and support of our fellow union brothers and sisters.
The AFL-CIO guided and stood beside us when we faced our “Goliath,” as did the New York City Central Labor Council. I especially want to mention Ed Feegan and Susan Borenstein of the AFL-CIO, who were tireless advocates and deserve our gratitude. The Teamsters and IATSE also stepped to the forefront.
SEIU 32B-J donated the use of their facility for a much-needed morale booster for our members, four months into the strike, and AFM Local 802 provided the music for this event. The talented Stanley F. Banks, Sue Terry, Wally “Gator” Watson, Cedric Thornhill and Raymond Naccari made our party a great success.
And, as if that wasn’t enough, Bill Dennison and Jim Hannen worked with me on the Labor Day Parade, displaying 802’s solidarity with SAG/AFTRA and making room for our member, Marcus Lovitt, and his family to sing with the musicians on your float. Last year fewer than 50 of our members marched in the parade. This year, we had more than 1,500!
On Oct. 22 at approximately 9:45 p.m., SAG/AFTRA and the JPC reached an agreement. The main points of this contract: There would be no rollbacks of residuals; we achieved a tiered increase in cable that was better than our original proposal; we were granted jurisdiction over the internet; there is a substantial pay increase for Spanish-speaking performers; and a monitoring system, though not implemented, is being studied jointly.
We can be proud of our gains and I want to thank every person who joined us on the line, behind the scenes, at the rallies and in the negotiations. Knowing that we weren’t alone – that other union members were there for us – helped us win this fight. We came out with a very good contract and, most important, they didn’t break us!
A communal discovery of hidden strength – that’s how I would sum up the experience of a lifetime. At least, I hope it was the experience of a lifetime and will not be repeated.
Dani Carr, a member of SAG, AFTRA & Actors Equity, was a member of the Strike Task Force.