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Striking Hollywood actors join striking writers on the picket lines


Actors are now on strike. Their union, SAG-AFTRA, called for a work stoppage against the big studios. The basic question is who receives how much of the profits from a swifty (ph) changing entertainment industry? Some of the actors are extremely wealthy, but thousands make a marginal living, and all face questions about their future as computers generate more content. Screenwriters facing similar challenges have been on strike since May. It's the first time since 1960 that two major Hollywood unions have been on strike at the same time. For more on this double strike, we're joined by SAG-AFTRA executive vice president Ben Whitehair.

Ben, what are you hearing from your members? What is the main issue for them - the No. 1 thing that needs to be resolved?

BEN WHITEHAIR: The No. 1 issue that needs to be resolved is, really, simply economic fairness. We just want to be able to make a living when the work that we're doing is what's supporting these Hollywood studios that last year made a combined profit of $10 billion, $80 billion in revenue. And at the end of the day, we just have different definitions of poverty. To them, that's poverty. And we're just trying to put food on the table and support our families.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to streaming services, there right now is no real transparency as far as viewership, and that affects residuals. Is that something that is a major sticking point, the fact that no one knows exactly how much is made?

WHITEHAIR: It is. Though, we've, as the union, come up with many different creative ideas on how we can still ensure that our members are getting paid fairly. And so far, the studios seem unwilling to engage in any way of doing that.

MARTÍNEZ: Disney's CEO, Bob Iger, has accused actors and writers of not being realistic in their demands. What's your response to that?

WHITEHAIR: I mean, honestly, it feels insulting. All that we're saying is that we should be making more money when you take account of inflation than we were before. If we would take the last deal that was presented to us, we'd be making less money in the new contract than we were in the previous contract, so why should we be taking a pay cut when clearly they have the money or their CEOs wouldn't be getting these tens and hundreds of millions of dollars in raises every year?

MARTÍNEZ: He says that show business has not yet recovered from the pandemic. Does that hold water to you?

WHITEHAIR: The short answer is no. I mean, it has certainly been a challenge since the pandemic. But because of SAG-AFTRA and us working with our sister unions, we were able to get the entertainment industry back up before the vast majority of other industries. And I'm - because it does not resonate with me that the massive profits in revenue that they're making - it simply means that the people that they're building their companies on the backs of shouldn't be able to make a living wage and have fair working conditions.

MARTÍNEZ: Considering how long the writers' strike has lasted, I know SAG-AFTRA's first day on strike is today or yesterday, how long do you think this can last? I mean, how long are you holding your breath for?

WHITEHAIR: I mean, ultimately, that'll be up to the studios. We're ready to talk, and we would love to get this resolved. At the end of the day, we just want a fair contract.

MARTÍNEZ: How long can your union last if indeed this deal doesn't get done, and they don't want to come to the table on this?

WHITEHAIR: Well, the union's never been in a stronger financial situation, and the resolve of our members should not be underestimated. We are willing to do whatever it takes to make sure that the future of this industry is something that can be sustained, and we are delighted to be the ones helping to bring entertainment, laughter, joy - all of these things that everybody turned to during the pandemic - for us, we're happy to keep doing that. We just realized that this is an existential moment. And in order to sustain it, we'll be out as long as it takes.

MARTÍNEZ: That's SAG-AFTRA Executive Vice President Ben Whitehair. Ben, thanks.

WHITEHAIR: Thank you.

MARTÍNEZ: And a quick note, transparency here. Many of us at NPR are members of SAG-AFTRA, but broadcast journalists are under a different contract, meaning we would not be expected to strike. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.