A new three-year labor deal between Hollywood’s actors and its film and TV studios could be made official within days, but not without vocal criticism that has stoked expectations of a close ratification vote.
Members of the SAG-AFTRA union, which represents more than 150,000 film and television performers, have been voting on the tentative deal over the last several weeks, with balloting set to end Tuesday.
The 129-page agreement was made fully public just after Thanksgiving — the culmination of a historic 118-day strike that brought Hollywood to a virtual standstill earlier this year, snarling productions of everything from blockbuster movies to network series and streaming shows.
The Writers Guild of America (WGA), which represents Hollywood screenwriters, overwhelmingly ratified its deal in October after a 148-day strike. The Directors Guild of America resoundingly approved its contract in June without striking.
The two other unions made similar demands as SAG-AFTRA, including stricter rules limiting the use of artificial intelligence in media productions, higher base compensation and a bigger cut of streaming profits. Until this year, WGA and SAG-AFTRA hadn’t held simultaneous strikes since 1960.
The actors union’s national board, a group of more than 70 people, voted the deal through on Nov. 10, with over 86% in favor. But a vocal handful of critics on the board publicly slammed it.
SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator, Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, said Saturday there is ‘no better alternative than to go forward with this agreement.’
‘Is it perfect? No. But it is groundbreaking, and it’s a deal that achieves what our members need us to achieve with very significant increases in economics, more than the last three negotiations combined and something to build upon with AI,’ Crabtree-Ireland said. ‘We will be back at it in 2 ½ years.’
In a statement after the vote, the board said the package, ‘valued at more than one billion dollars in new wages and benefit plan funding, is a landmark achievement for the union.’
“The deal provides meaningful protections around the use of artificial intelligence, including informed consent and compensation for the creation and use of digital replicas of our members, living and deceased, whether created on set or licensed for use,” it said.
But as details of the tentative deal emerged, the hashtag #SAGAFTRAvoteNO began making its way onto social media, with some performers singling out what they deemed insufficient protections around AI.
Alex Plank, an actor and SAG-AFTRA member, called the AI provisions “disappointing,” saying he had hoped for stringent prohibitions against actors’ likenesses being used to train AI models. Under the proposed contract, he said, “producers are allowed to generate a synthetic performer and just have to notify SAG and bargain with the union over its use,” a situation he said amounted to “allowing synthetic performers to compete with human ones.”
Plank also criticized some of the compensation provisions. “I don’t think what we got will necessarily help the average actor’s pay,” he said, describing the criteria for receiving streaming residuals — a form of royalty — as too narrow.
Three other union members who spoke with NBC News anonymously, fearing professional fallout, had a range of views on the labor deal.
“I think the vote will be close,” one speculated, citing “an overwhelming amount of people voting no.”
Another union member — who served on the negotiating committee — had more praise for SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher and the terms of the agreement.
“This is hands-down the best deal we’ve ever received, and it’s thanks to the tireless work of Fran and the negotiating committee,” the person said. “We’ve come a long way and everyone will benefit.”
Drescher herself has fired back at critics of the tentative deal.
“Sadly there have been some naysayers who have exploited this momentum of ours,” she reportedly told members in a Zoom meeting last month, according to Variety.
A third source, a SAG-AFTRA strike captain, said that a failure to ratify the new labor deal would be unlikely to trigger another strike. The union and studios “would probably just work things out and then hold the vote again,” they said.
Few SAG-AFTRA members have any appetite left for another punishing picket after the one that recently ended hammered many members’ finances. For months, tens of thousands went without pay as union negotiators and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (which represents Comcast, the owner of NBCUniversal), haggled over issues like minimum wages and residuals in the streaming era.
The talks at times involved some of Hollywood’s most powerful CEOs, including Disney’s Bob Iger, Netflix’s Ted Sarandos, Warner Bros. Discovery’s David Zaslav and NBCUniversal’s Donna Langley.
Linda Powell, SAG-AFTRA’s executive vice president, said Saturday that the debate over the tentative deal was healthy.
“The reason we were able to achieve as much as we did is because of the work our members put in and going on strike for 118 days,” she said. “The engagement you’re seeing around the deal itself is a natural result of so many of us being involved for so long.”
She said she’d be happy if the tentative deal was approved by even 51%.
“I think people are turning the corner and I think a lot of people waited to vote, to educate themselves further,” she said. “It’s a healthy process.”