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Why I Joined a Union Picket Line

A veteran actor speaks out on the fight to protect human creativity.

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photo collage of woman holding sag aftra on strike poster, union picket line
David Weissberg
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I’ve been a member of actor unions SAG and AFTRA since 1965. When my union went on strike June 14, 2023, I joined the picket lines to support a fight that is as much about the average worker as it is about movie moguls and film stars. Hollywood is a “gig” industry; how we get paid and install protections against artificial intelligence (AI) “replacement” affects the livelihoods of everyone.

Actors with long “bread-and-butter” careers, like mine, experience periods both of feast and of famine. We can ride high as a regular in a TV series and book a major role in a feature film one year, only to scrape by with episodic guest shots the following year. Roughly 87 percent of SAG-AFTRA members earn less than $26,000 a year from acting.

Residuals get us through the lean times and pay for our health insurance, thanks to a strike in 1960 led by SAG President Ronald Reagan (then a Democrat) that guaranteed repeat fees for film and television work. Powerful studio executive Lew Wasserman balked at the union’s demands, saying, “My plumber doesn’t charge me every time I flush the toilet.”

Journalist and author Mark Harris’ pithy response: “Not to belabor an already disgusting analogy, but writers, directors and actors aren’t the plumber: They’re the water. Without them ... you end up with a toilet full of … well, let’s just say ‘reruns.'

Ironically, 10 years earlier, Wasserman, then head of the mighty MCA talent agency, had represented many Hollywood actors, including Reagan. For his part, in 1981, President Reagan (now Republican) fired striking air traffic controllers.

In my nearly 60-year career as an actress, writer and producer, I’ve witnessed much of the industry’s evolution with each new technology.

In 1980, the last time I walked a picket line, Jimmy Carter was president, and I was filming the CBS television series Big Shamus, Little Shamus, with Brian Dennehy. Back then, we were negotiating residual pay for something new called “VHS” and cable TV, then available in only 23 percent of national households. Forty years later, residuals have dwindled with the emergence of streaming platforms.

According to investor and media commentator Steven Rattner on Morning Joe, "the changing media landscape" is the issue “because residuals get paid differently; if it’s on broadcast, they get paid each time it’s shown, versus streaming, where they’re paid by the number of subscribers.”

Notably, I still receive sizable residuals from the ABC television soap Dark Shadows, which I did 57 years ago, that exceed repeat fees for my recent appearances in shows that are streamed.

Regarding AI, I was amused when a fan sent me a mash-up video in which a digital version of me was inserted into shows I’ve never been in — but aghast at how easily anyone can replicate my likeness with easily downloadable software. To what ends? If “Maggie Evans,” the Collinsport diner waitress I played in Dark Shadows, could appear among the Alice waitresses in Mel’s Diner, where else could my image appear without permission or compensation?

The special effects on Dark Shadows were laughably primitive — a swooping bat was a paper cutout dangling on a fishing pole jiggled by a propman. Fifty years later, while filming an episode of Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., little green stickers were placed on my face so that later, in postproduction, computer-generated gimcrackery could fracture my features like a porcelain plate and incinerate them into ash.

If an effect can be imagined, it can be generated. That is perfectly acceptable as long as an actor’s likeness isn’t digitally stashed away in a stock file of images to be used indiscriminately, without compensation and permission.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s chief negotiator and national executive director, condemns "paying performers for one day of work in exchange for the rights to their digital likeness for the rest of eternity with no compensation."

Seven leading AI companies in the United States — Amazon, Anthropic, Google, Inflection, Meta, Microsoft and OpenAI — have agreed to voluntary safeguards on the technology’s development. But this announcement comes as companies race to develop competing versions of AI to create text, photos, music and video without human input.

These aren’t issues that solely affect actors. As an author, I was dismayed to learn that despite copyright protection, Google planned to scan my books unless I chose to formally opt out. Needless to say, I “opted out,” along with some 6,500 other authors, publishers and literary agents.

Still, I find whole books I’ve written available online for free download and suspect that my creative work has also been digested as fodder for ChatGPT and various generative AI tools.

I embrace AI technology in everyday life in ways I barely consider. My dentist’s office is equipped to produce a gleaming new molar in an hour to replace my cracked porcelain crown that previously required a tedious wait from a dental lab. I’m also aware that in its time-and-labor-saving capacity, new technology puts skilled labor out of work, just as the Model T reduced the number of blacksmiths making horseshoes.

It’s clear to all that AI is not a genie to be jammed back in a bottle, but neither do I want HAL from Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey taking over. We need safeguards to ensure these advancements don’t compromise ethical principles, cause unintended harm or infringe on human creative endeavor.

That’s why I am picketing.

What do you think of the current strike? Let us know in the comments below.

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