NEW MEXICO – For two months, the SAG-AFTRA union has been on strike, demanding fair wages for actors as the industry evolves. The nationwide strike has been largely visible in New York and Hollywood, but the strike has significant implications in New Mexico as well.
The Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) is a labor union that represents thousands of entertainment professionals across the country. The union went on strike on July 14, following the Writers Guild of America which went on strike in May.
Why is SAG-AFTRA on strike?
The trade association Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) represents media production companies including Apple, Disney/ABC/Fox, Netflix, Paramount/CBS, Amazon/MGM, NBCUniversal and several hundred other companies.
AMPTP revisited contract negotiations with the WGA in early 2023 before the guild went on strike on May 2. AMPTP negotiations then began with SAG-AFTRA in June. Contract negotiations are revisited every three years with SAG-AFTRA.
According to the SAG-AFTRA strike website, the union is asking for a minimum wage increase for members, protection of images and performances to prevent human replacement by artificial technology and updated residual agreements so actors are compensated for the streaming of their work, as well as multiple other points.
Marc Comstock, a New Mexico actor and SAG-AFTRA member, has been an actor since early elementary school when he participated in community theater. He became a SAG-AFTRA member in 1995 and has worked on guild boards for 10 years.
Comstock’s acting credits involve national and localized commercials, theater and appearances in “The Night Shift,” “Manhattan” and “Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials.”
He told the Sun-News that AI technology is coming, but the concern is how it will be used in entertainment media.
“We can’t deny that it’s coming and we can’t not use it. There’ll be other things that it’s used for, you know, probably editing and things like that. We want to make sure that there’s some guardrails on that so that it doesn’t take away jobs from our union members,” Comstock said. “(SAG-AFTRA leaders) mentioned that the AMPTP’s offer for background was to scan an actor’s image once, pay them for one day’s work, then they would own that image in perpetuity. So they can put them in one project, they can put them in a thousand projects.”
Comstock added that videogame actors are already seeing their image be used in a video game then cropped and used in films.
A news release from AMPTP on July 18 reads, “The AMPTP agrees with SAG-AFTRA that use of a performer’s likeness to generate a new performance requires consent and compensation.” However, the two parties have not agreed on a combined proposal.
As for the issue of residuals, Comstock said media streaming has changed the business model. Actors previously received residual payment when a network TV show they worked on moved to a subscription channel or appeared in reruns.
“Now with the streaming model, that’s disappeared. We’ve lost 37% of our wages since our last contract,” Comstock said. “Really, it’s just about making sure that everyone’s paid (fairly) for their contribution to the work ... And also too, we’re losing the middle class of storytellers and creatives, whether that’s actors, whether that’s crew, whether that’s writers.”
Several items were tentatively agreed upon by both groups, however negotiations ultimately stalled and the contracts expired at midnight on June 30. SAG-AFTRA went on strike to demand equitable contracts.
Prior to negotiations, SAG-AFTRA members voted 97.91% in favor of a strike authorization, which National Board President Fran Drescher noted in a press conference, is the largest authorization vote in the union’s history.
“It’s a very serious thing that impacts thousands, if not millions, of people all across this country and around the world. Not only members of this union, but people who work in other industries that service the people that work in this industry,” Drescher said. “I am shocked by the way that the people we have been in business with are treating us.”
A full list of SAG-AFTRA’s proposals is available online at www.sagaftrastrike.org/why-we-strike.
While both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are on strike, unionized entertainment workers are unable to work with production companies represented under AMPTP.
SAG-AFTRA noted that members “can and should” continue working on projects not covered by the contracts under negotiation, which include commercials, sound recordings, music videos, TV programs covered by the Network TV Code such as soap operas, talk shows, variety shows and game shows.
There are also several interim agreements the guild has approved which members can continue working on. However, this still leaves many actors out of media work.
Comstock noted that actors have historically been “gig” workers with day jobs to bring a more steady income in. Now, actors may work more hours at these non-entertainment jobs. There are also unemployment opportunities and financial aid available through the guild.
What does the strike mean for New Mexico?
New Mexico has become a hub for entertainment productions in recent years, particularly due to the film tax credit the state offers, partnerships with production companies and the creation of larger film studios.
The strikes halted new film and television productions in the state, however the New Mexico Film Office noted that digital media, video game and commercial projects are still moving forward.
According to the New Mexico Film Office, the entertainment industry spent over $794 million in the state between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2023. The state also noted that communities outside the Albuquerque/Santa Fe Corridor experienced an increase of 150% in direct spending in Fiscal Year 2023.
This translates into spending on hotels, food industry, travel and local businesses.
The strike halted new productions across the country for two months now, impacting the revenue these productions bring to the state.
"The industry strikes are impacting new production starts in New Mexico and, with that, direct spending into the state economy for payroll and support services from small businesses. The extent of this slowdown won’t be known for several months,” wrote a New Mexico Film Office spokesperson.
Comstock explained that there are approximately 1,100 union actors in New Mexico and El Paso. He was one of many New Mexico actors who picketed in front of the Netflix studios in Albuquerque in late July.
“Just because we’re a small Local doesn’t mean that we don’t want our voices to be heard or assume that we’re not doing anything and that we’re complacent,” Comstock said. “Our membership is very active and we had over 400 people show up.”
Negotiations between the guild and the trade association are still underway, however it is unclear how soon contracts will be agreed upon and signed. Until then, actors will continue to strike.
“Most of us think this is like a generational type of contract that we need to have because we don't want to be striking every three years,” Comstock said. “All we want to do is have a really fair contract that is right for everybody. And in three years from now, we don't have to go on strike, we can just increase what we've already set on the table. So the stakes are high.”
He added that actors started seeing a drop in income and residual profit about two years ago, signaling the need for renegotiations.
This article originally appeared on Las Cruces Sun-News: SAG-AFTRA strike going on two months, but how does it impact New Mexico?