On Thursday morning, SAG-AFTRA finally ended the 118-day actors strike after its negotiating committee approved a tentative agreement with Hollywood studios valued at over $1 billion.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s national executive director and chief negotiator, knows the process to get to this point was lengthy and brutal — but he says it was necessary to gain the terms that SAG-AFTRA members needed, especially on artificial intelligence. “It took a long time for us to get the industry to be willing to put the necessary protections in place,” he says.
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The new agreement, in broad strokes, establishes higher first-year compensation increases than the Writers Guild of America and Directors Guild received in their recent labor contracts, enshrines guidelines on the use of AI, creates a new mechanism for performers to be compensated for streaming work, and raises caps on employer contributions for health and pension funds.
In terms of the fine print, Crabtree-Ireland isn’t sharing until the union’s national board approves the deal. But in an interview on Thursday, the union leader discussed some details of the contract’s AI protections and its streaming participation bonus. He also explained why he believes this strike was all about the “journeyman performer.”
You’ve just announced the end of a 118-day strike, which heralds the end of about six months of work stoppage in Hollywood. How are you feeling?
I’m feeling great. I’m feeling very excited that we finally set the deal, that the deal contains what our members really need, that in this negotiation we were able to make breakthroughs up to the very last day and frankly that everyone can now get back to work because the full strike period has, of course, been very hard not only on our members, but on the members of all the other unions and really all workers in the industry. I think everyone is really glad to get back to work with a deal that provides the basic respect and fairness that our members needed in this negotiation.
SAG-AFTRA has sent a general summary of its agreement, but specifically what are you proudest of having gained in the contract in this round of talks?
Well, AI turned out to be probably one of the most significant and difficult issues throughout the entire negotiation and strike process. We recognized early how much of this there was attached to the unfettered implementation of AI in the industry. And we worked hard to prepare ourselves for it. We worked hard to try and build an understanding within the industry side about why this is so important to us, and then throughout the negotiation continued to insist on provisions that provided the kind of protection that our members need. And ultimately achieving that is very rewarding because it is a need that’s emergant for right now, but it’s also a need that is going to continue over time. And I think when we look back on this agreement in five to 10 years, the ground we’ve broken with respect to AI protection will prove to be incredibly important.
Can you specifically explain what regulations actors won on AI and why that ended up being a topic that SAG-AFTRA worked on seemingly until the very end of negotiations?
I think that our members have made it very clear from the beginning that they expected to have a right of consent over their image, like a voice or performance, in the creation of any kind of digital replicas, including AI-based ones. And also [there was] the concern about how generative AI can be used in the future or even in the near future to create synthetic fakes of actors. So having set rights, having compensation rights, having guardrails around those issues was absolutely essential, because if somebody can simply create a digital duplicate of you, then how do you feel like you have security in your job? And on top of that, how does it feel right that someone else can essentially own a [duplicate] of you? So we had to put fences around that and we were able to achieve that. And I think that’s one of reasons why it’s taken so long, is that it took a long time for us to get the industry to be willing to put the necessary protections in place.
What didn’t you get in this deal that you want to prioritize in the next round of contract bargaining?
It’s hard to say what we’ll necessarily be pursuing in two and a half years because there’s a whole process by which that’ll be determined by members. Everything here is member-driven and certainly by members believe our most crucial needs are. So it’s hard to say, but I do think there’s a chance that we’ll return to any number of items that we weren’t able to achieve this time, such as improvements in our meal penalties and our late fees, other provisions to address disparities in various contract areas. And perhaps even at some point we’ll revisit the question of whether there can be a compensation mechanism in streaming that can attach to revenue. But all of that is to be determined another day. We’re just focused on getting this agreement communicated out to our members so they understand what all the terms are and so they can cast informed votes in our ratification process.
Can you explain the details of the “streaming participation bonus” that is included in the deal?
I probably can’t go into all the details now; I think we probably want to wait until after we’ve talked to our board about it before I do that. But I will note that it is a hybrid approach that incorporates some of the elements of the streaming bonus to programs that the Writers Guild negotiated, but with a significant difference in the mechanism by which that money is distributed. And that is going to ensure that a wider group of our members who work in the streaming space receive compensation from it.
So you’re talking about the fund that will be jointly administered by both SAG-AFTRA and management, right?
So will SAG-AFTRA and management, then, both have a role in determining how the compensation is disbursed?
Yeah, it’ll be a jointly trusteed fund. I expect that we will be driving the discussion on the distribution mechanism, but they will certainly have to be part of that and ultimately we’ll decide jointly how that’s implemented.
You said that a wide group of performers can have access to compensation from this fund. So it sounds like it’s not just performers who are on the top-performing shows …
Can you say who will be compensated?
I can’t yet, because that’s the decision that will be made during that discussion that the fund trustees will have. But I can say that it will be limited to people who are working in streaming. It’s not meant to broaden beyond that. This is meant to be trying to help mitigate the impact of the changes in the streaming business model, so it will be more people who work on the shows that are programmed on those platforms.
What were the most difficult moments in the negotiating process? Conversely, what were the most rewarding moments?
The most difficult moments were times when the studios and streamers walked away from talks, because to me it’s hard to find a path to any kind of [deal] if you don’t have ongoing conversations. I think that was a development that really prolonged the strike, unfortunately. So I’d probably say that was probably the most stressful moment for me.
As far as rewarding moments, there were probably several. One of them was actually at the very beginning of the negotiation, we had brought in a number of members to help educate the folks from the studio side about why the proposals we made were important. And I think seeing those members put out that kind of explanation was a moment of great optimism. It didn’t always work out: Those presentations didn’t always result in the kind of movement that we were hoping for. But they were really inspiring, and I also think that a number of them did have an impact, so that was one moment. And, of course, yesterday when we reached the final agreement, that was obviously a very powerful, moving moment. And our committee, after giving final approval, had the chance to have some words with each other that I thought were really beautiful, inspiring, and kind of put a bow on the end of this process that has been very challenging and difficult for a lot of people, including me. Those would be the moments that stand out to me most.
There has been frustration among actors and crew about the lack of transparency around the negotiations, and the pace of them. Why couldn’t you share more specifics, and why did it take so long?
It’s pretty unusual for bargaining parties to decide to reveal all kinds of details of the back and forth that’s going on in negotiations. We didn’t do that during the first 35 days, neither did the Writers Guild, nor does anyone that I’m aware of do that, because when you’re in the middle of negotiating, unless you are part of that team that has all of the information, it can be hard to process the [details] of what’s going on. So I can understand the frustration because once you go out on strike, everyone’s very hyper-focused on what’s going on day to day, and hoping that it’ll be over every day, which is understandable. But I think the committee struck the right balance and writing updates as much as they could without negotiating in public or in the press. That’s just a natural tension in a strike situation and collective bargaining.
Do you have any particular message for the industry that has waited so long for this moment?
I would have some different messages for different parts of the industry. To our fellow union members and the other workers in the industry, my message would be, thank you for your solidarity and your support throughout this entire time. We know how hard it was. Not only were our members suffering, but everyone was suffering, and that’s something that was really difficult to absorb and do, but that we were fighting for something super important. And I hope that when they see the agreement, they’ll understand why it was worth it to pursue that fight. To the companies themselves, I would state that I appreciate the fact that they have finally gotten to a place where they can put the protections into the agreement that our members need so that we can move this forward. And I hope that people look back on this and think about how to handle these kinds of negotiations in the future, that it’ll become a common sentiment of understanding that we should not have long periods of time where the parties aren’t talking to each other. Because the only way that strikes can get resolved is by talking. And perhaps not, but perhaps both of these strikes could have been resolved sooner if there had been ongoing discussions and communications instead of long periods with no exchanges between the parties.
Is there anything else you want to add?
Only just to reemphasize that when we all look back on this strike, I think we will see that it has been true all along that while we’ve had the benefit of having some very high-profile members out there helping push our message, whether it’s on picket lines or in the press or in other places, this strike has really been about the journeyman performer, about working actors, people who are just trying to make a living. And [when it comes to] this agreement, there are protections that run the gamut of all of our membership, from background actors all the way to the most successful high-profile actors, like AI. But there are a lot of important economic needs in this contract that are designed to help maintain a middle-class living as a possibility for actors who are working in this industry. And that’s to the benefit of everyone in the industry, because having a robust acting community provides the kind of resources to help us keep productions going and productions drawing in audiences that keep all of these businesses going. That’s an important point, to recognize that this is a strike for working-class, middle-class actors and in that regard, it’s an extremely, extremely successful agreement that we’ve reached.
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