SAG-AFTRA members voted overwhelmingly in favor of giving their leaders authority to strike against video game companies if they can’t reach a deal over a new contract, the union announced Monday.
The authorization, which does not trigger a strike but is intended to give leaders bargaining leverage, brings the union closer to a second potential work stoppage that would further disrupt the entertainment industry.
SAG-AFTRA’s film and television actors have been on strike since mid-July, when they joined Writers Guild of America members on picket lines for the first time in 63 years. (The writers and major Hollywood studios struck a tentative deal Sunday.)
The union said the strike authorization was approved by 98% of those who voted. The move comes as union leaders and game companies prepare for another round of bargaining over the Interactive Media Agreement set to begin Tuesday.
“After five rounds of bargaining, it has become abundantly clear that the video game companies aren’t willing to meaningfully engage on the critical issues: compensation undercut by inflation, unregulated use of AI and safety,” SAG-AFTRA National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said in a statement.
The agreement, negotiated in 2017, expired in November and covers about 2,600 performers. That agreement did not address AI — a key concern in both the SAG-AFTRA film and TV actors’ strike and the WGA writers’ strike.
Game actors and performers argue that AI poses an equal or even greater threat to those in the video game industry than it does in film and TV, particularly because many do voice-over work.
The performers have said that they don’t expect companies to stop using AI. Instead, they argued, workers should have contracts that require their consent to reproduce their voice or likeness and compensate them when that does happen.
Sarah Elmaleh, chair of the interactive negotiating committee, said that some members are excited about the potential for new revenue streams with AI, while others are more wary.
“AI is being litigated literally and culturally and economically, all in real time right now,” she said. “The responsible thing to do is to say, ‘What you can’t do is cut us out of this conversation.’”
Audrey Cooling, spokesperson for the video game producers who are party to the Interactive Media Agreement, said recently that the companies “all want a fair contract.”
“We are negotiating in good faith and hope to reach a mutually beneficial deal as soon as possible,” Cooling said.
Video game performers under the interactive agreement are asking for the same increase in wages sought in the film and TV contracts to keep pace with inflation.
The negotiating committee has asked for an 11% increase retroactive to the expiration of the last contract, as well as a 4% increase in the second and third years of the agreement.
The union said in a post on its website that the game companies’ wage proposal offered a 5% increase effective upon ratification, a 4% increase in the second year and a 3% increase in the third year. The signatory game companies pulled in more than $19 billion in global revenue last year, according to union leadership.
The negotiating committee has also demanded greater worker protections, including a five-minutes-per-hour rest period for on-camera performers and the inclusion of a set medic for stunts and hazardous work.
“We’ve seen across the entertainment strikes, both the WGA and TV theatrical, that the companies that we’re bargaining with don’t really take us seriously. They don’t think that we have any leverage, and so they’re willing to just stand there, fold their arms and hold their breath and wait for us to go away,” said Zeke Alton, a member of the interactive negotiating committee.
If those under the interactive contract go on strike, it would mark the first time since October 2016.
During that strike, which lasted more than a year, SAG-AFTRA targeted 11 companies, including divisions of Activision Blizzard, Electronic Arts, Take Two, Insomniac Games, Warner Bros. and Walt Disney Co.
The union and video game companies reached a tentative deal in September 2017 that included a new bonus compensation structure for actors who perform voice and motion-capture work in the game industry.
Alton noted that there are “pockets of concern” among members who are fatigued from the last video game strike and this year’s entertainment industry strikes, but that workers generally feel that an authorization is “absolutely needed at this time.”
“We’re at an inflection point in the industry, where if we don’t at least get a bare minimum of protections, we are ceding the right to be replaced,” he said.