A union steps into the spotlight

Last July, SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents thousands of film and television actors, commenced a headline-making strike. Key issues for the union in the labor dispute were better compensation and working conditions, as well as improved guardrails on the use of AI. (This action—and a concurrent work stoppage by the Writers Guild of America—brought film and TV production to a halt.) The 118-day strike—one of the longest in SAG-AFTRA’s history—ended in November, with the union winning many of their most critical demands.

And what was the single factor that got SAG-AFTRA through the sometimes-bruising negotiations? According to SAG-AFTRA national executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, it was the sustained show of unity among the union’s members buoyed by the encouragement from other entertainment industry professionals.

“The solidarity of our membership was extraordinary,” Crabtree-Ireland says. “The members of SAG-AFTRA spoke with one powerful voice, and we were very much aligned with the Writers Guild and the other industry unions who stood by us. The support from the industry at large and the support from the general public, combined with the duration of the strike and the passion of our members, is what really got the attention of the CEOs.” 

Fostering a culture of passion and active engagement—and harnessing that energy to constantly improve the working conditions of its members—has earned SAG-AFTRA a spot on Fast Company’s 2024 list of the world’s Most Innovative Companies.


The strike may have thrust SAG-AFTRA into the spotlight, but its real work is decidedly less high-profile. “Our mission,” Crabtree-Ireland says, “is to make sure that our members are safe and secure, that they’re treated fairly, that they’re compensated fairly, and that their rights are protected.”

For SAG-AFTRA, that mission is establishing and securing the best possible protections for its members—through contract negotiation and enforcement, as well as legislative advocacy at home and abroad—even as new technologies reshape the industry. The union also encourages diversity and inclusion in the entertainment industry through tracking diversity and inclusion metrics, ensuring members from different backgrounds have the opportunity to audition, and addressing non-inclusive activity pro-actively with entertainment companies. And, of course, SAG-AFTRA processes residuals payments for past film and TV work.

Years of consistent efforts along these lines have inspired a high level of devotion among SAG-AFTRA membership, which also includes broadcasters, singers, dancers, stunt performers, and influencers. It surprised no one, when it came to the strike, that members were ready to stick it out for the long haul.


One of the biggest wins for union members came in the form of new streaming bonus money, which Crabtree-Ireland says will roughly double the amount of a residual for eligible members. The deal also changed options rules that would provide many series performers with additional income during long gaps between seasons of their shows. And it introduced contractual provisions requiring informed consent for AI-based digital replication, a major concern for actors as AI tools become more powerful.

“When people ask me, was it all worth it? My answer is: It was so hard,” Crabtree-Ireland says. “It was so hard for so many of our members and workers in our industry. But yes, it was worth it, because it helped establish a new paradigm that is setting us up for success for many years to come.”

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