Atlanta SAG-AFTRA, WGA members solidify their stance on strikes, fair compensation

Actor Elaine Hendrix, a member of Atlanta’s local of the Screen Actors Guild, stands on the dais holding a cardboard sign that reads, "Union" as nearly a thousand of union members and supporters cheer in support of SAG-AFTRA on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. The union, which represents actors, announcers, puppeteers, voiceover artists and other media professionals joined a picket line over 40 days ago that has already held for 113 days by the Writer’s Guild of America. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

On Tuesday evening, National Union Solidarity Day, thousands of local writers, actors and broadcasters gathered into Teamsters Local 728 to show support for their union amid the impending strikes of WGA and SAG-AFTRA, both currently in their 115th and 42nd days on the picket lines respectively.

Atlanta represents over 3,000 SAG-AFTRA members and 121 WGA members, many of whom have been active on picket lines, social media and at rallies throughout the striking period.

Familiar faces, ranging from “Dynasty” and “The Parent Trap” actress and activist Elaine Hendrix to “Stranger Things” co-star Catherine Dyer, took the podium one by one to show support for the fight for creatives to be compensated in payment and resources by corporate media outlets.

Emmy-nominated actor Malcolm Jamal-Warner, best known for his television roles as Theo Huxtable in “The Cosby Show” and Dr. August Jeremiah in “The Resident,” has lived in Atlanta for five years, where the latter series filmed for six seasons.

He states that the city has allowed him to work with some very accomplished local talent, whom he encourages to stand firm during the adversities that have come with the industry shutdown.

Actor Malcolm-Jamal Warner delivers an emotional speech, during a rally in Atlanta for a National Day of Solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America, East on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“This is really just the beginning. We got to keep our morale up but also have to guard ourselves against strike fatigue,” the actor and musician said.

Warner notes that this is the first time within his 40-plus year career that he has seen the two unions strike simultaneously.

“I think that makes this whole experience even more profound. I think where we are now, the stakes are greater than what affects us as artists … we’re almost the last frontier, especially in terms of this fight against A.I. and automation.”

Technology is one of the primary factors that actors and writers are battling against, with many fearing that A.I. is being groomed to take over their job opportunities.

“There is an existential fight happening in the entertainment industry where corporations are changing the business model and how they’re compensating workers and using their image and likeness with technology,” said Liz Shuler, President of American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest union federation in the U.S.

“In terms of residuals … the business model has changed. And with streaming, we know that the companies are making billions of dollars, and the structure for compensating actors hasn’t caught up with the new model.”

Liz Shuler, President of the AFL-CIO speaks to union members and guests on Tuesday, August 22, 2023 in Atlanta, Ga during a solidarity rally for SAG-AFTRA and WGA who are on strike. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

Shuler states that the strikes are coming at a time when workers of all fields are standing up for their rights to fair working conditions, with Atlanta-based shipping company UPS ratifying a five-year contract with the Teamsters union earlier this week. 

“This is a very special and unique moment in our country right now,” she said. “[Workers are] finding their voice and looking to form unions so that they can make the change they want to see in their workplaces.”

This is not to say that the fight for victory has not come with a handful of casualties, however.

Some SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikers have gone without a stable paycheck for months, experiencing financial insecurity that will potentially exist well after the strikes are over. And it is not just the actors and the writers who are being affected.

“Even a year from now, [if] everything was solved next week, the long-term effects on the economy, the local businesses … it’s affecting everybody,” said Kaypri Marcus, captain of Writers Guild of America Atlanta.

Kaypri Marcus, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America addresses fellow union members and supporters during a rally in Atlanta for a National Day of Solidarity with SAG-AFTRA and Writers Guild of America, East on Tuesday, August 22, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

She notes that alongside writers and actors, crew members ranging from hair stylists to set designers are also facing the consequences of the film and television industry going on a standstill.

“All my friends who are in the industry are pretty much out of work,” she said. “They might try to do something independent, but you know, [the strikes are] a reality check.”

With shorter numbers of episodes for production seasons and a lack of syndication residuals due to streaming platforms such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and Apple Plus taking the industry by storm, both writers and actors are struggling to make ends meet.

“Back in the day, a writer could buy a house, and now, a writer can barely pay rent,” she added. “The Entertainment Community Fund is covering what it can, but the reality is people are just really suffering.”

Throughout all of the tribulations, she has noted one positive thing to come out of the experience.

Over a thousand workers and union members packed into Teamster s 728’s Union Hall on Tuesday, August 24, 2023. (Matthew Pearson/WABE)

“[Atlanta WGA members have] found out who each other are; a lot of us didn’t know each other,” Marcus said. “Now, because of the strike … I’m getting to know who those people are. And they getting to know me. In some cases, they’re like reunions that people we know from other parts of our lives.”

“They’re in it for the long haul because they recognize this as an existential fight,” said Shuler. “And that if they don’t stand up, who will?”