Writer: LeKeisha Edwards
As the SAG-AFTRA and Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) strikes press on, we sat down with actress Reagan Gomez, star of the 90’s family sitcom, The Parenthood and voice of Roberta Tubbs on The Cleveland Show, to break down what the strike means, and why the movement is so crucial for other industries throughout the world.
Gomez, known for taking a stand and being vocal on a myriad of social and political issues as reflected on her X (formerly Twitter) social media page, has appeared in a number of films, plays, and sitcoms—even writing and creating the binge-worthy web series, Almost Home, and the award-winning sci-fi thriller, Surviving. Acting since 1994, and a member of SAG-AFTRA for nearly 30 years, Gomez is no novice to Hollywood, and has witnessed tremendous change in the industry that impacts the livelihoods of actors, writers, crewmembers, and their families.
What is SAG-AFTRA and what is the benefit as it relates to its members?
Reagan Gomez: SAG-AFTRA stands for the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. The union was formed in the 1930’s, and their primary mission is to protect and support laborers that work in media. Unlike a human resources department that is there to protect the company, the union’s only priority is to protect the actors, artists, performers, and others that work in media.
Can you expound upon the protection and support of the union?
Aside from some of the amazing SAG-AFTRA projects members can work on, the union offers health insurance and pension plans to its members, in addition to workshops and resources. However, the most essential benefit is the protection and voice of the union because it helps to ensure members are not exploited. For example, if an actor is not a member and is doing work on an independent set, there is no one there to protect that actor. When we consider the decades of acting and the disparities and inequitable treatment that people of color, or even women on sets have experienced, you really need a force behind you as you navigate your career.
Many individuals that do not work in television or film have heard the news of the strikes but have difficulty understanding its significance. Why are the strikes so vital in 2023?
The strikes of the past and the recent strikes mostly reflect the evolution of technology and change in the industry. The unions have historically fought for change in laws, policies, and benefits that fairly support its members. If we take it back to the 1990’s, network television was king. A season would be composed of about 20-25 episodes and perhaps even longer. As you go through each season, those working on that show would have a goal of getting to at least 100 episodes because then you would reach syndication. Syndication equals reruns. When your show comes to an end, and you are not actively filming new episodes, you still have reruns that are playing on network television. For an actor, every time something you are in plays on television, you earn residuals.
Sort of like the reruns of The Simpsons or Seinfeld?
Yes, exactly! Actors, voiceover actors, etc., all had to fight for residuals. Back in the day when media was only in radio, individuals would only get paid for live performances. When radio started taping performances and re-airing the content, people deserved to get paid for the content they helped create each time it aired. Most actors make their living from residuals, but then came the world of streaming.
How has streaming impacted residuals?
If a syndicated show is streaming, actors receive no residuals. While studios are making record profits, they get to keep all the revenue from streaming that they once had to share with production when content was only on network television. Everyone streams now. The actors, writers, production team, etc., deserve to earn pay from streaming as well through a re-imagined framework.
When the average person assumes that if you’re on television or in the movies–you should have tons of money–that is really not the case?
Not at all! Most actors are not receiving Tom Cruise-type salaries. Many actors or writers are not able to make high levels of money and some even get second jobs. They earn below the “middle-class” as defined by today’s standards. On another note, the middle-class itself is disappearing for so many people in a number of industries because of inflation and the rise of technology. Every company in this country, and perhaps in the world, are always looking for a way to cut down on labor and costs, which unfortunately means cutting down on the employment of human beings.
Which brings us to artificial intelligence or AI.
AI is here and no one is fighting for AI to not exist. We understand that there are some benefits to the intelligence. However there needs to be some regulation. You shouldn’t be able to use the likeness of an actor via AI, without the actor’s consent. Congress takes such a long time to make important decisions, so they cannot be relied upon at this time. This is why the unions are so critical and necessary. While it may seem like the policies the unions are proposing will only affect Hollywood, AI will affect every other career in this country and the world—so we may be the first to hopefully put some regulation on this type of technology that can create a template of sorts for other industries.
How are writer’s being impacted by streaming or AI?
Writers deserve tremendous respect. Nothing happens without the script or the story. Back in the day, if you wanted to be a writer and your hope was to get on a television show, you had more opportunities to gain experience, make connections, and work your way up from a writer’s assistant to a showrunner. Now with seasons being cut from twenty plus episodes to maybe six or eight, the writer’s room has shrunk in size. This makes building a lasting career difficult for many writers and especially black writer’s that already have a tough time making it into these rooms. If there are only two or three writers in a room now, then there is more pressure on those writers to turn over episodes in a smaller amount of time. More importantly, the types of stories being told are impacted when you do not have a diverse room of writers. There are also threats from technology that can create a script without a human being largely involved in the process. Humans need to be able to continue to work these jobs and be a part of discussions on how we can effectively and morally use technology in creative work.
Vox News wrote that “[…]the power being put on display by the outfits currently on strike exemplify why [unions] matter.”
There is more power when there are a group of people coming together to affect change. People are struggling and it’s important to fight for regulation as AI evolves. The goal is not even to make millions–but to just make a living.