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Duncan Crabtree-Ireland (C), executive director and chief negotiator for SAG AFTRA, and the members of the negotiating committee address the SAG AFTRA members at the picket line outside of Warner Brothers in Burbank, California, in October. Image Credit: AFP

Hollywood’s actors have voted to ratify the deal with studios that ended their strike after nearly four months, bringing an official finish to the labour strife that shook the entertainment industry for most of 2023.

The approval of the three-year contract from the members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists announced Tuesday night by union leaders was no certainty, with some prominent members voicing dissent on the deal their negotiators bargained for.

The 78 per cent ‘yes’ result in voting that began Nov. 13 and ended Tuesday was a far cry from the near-unanimous approval and widespread enthusiasm members of the writers guild gave to the deal that ended their strike in September.

But the outcome is a major relief for SAG-AFTRA leaders and an entertainment industry that is attempting to return to normal after months of labor strife. And it brings a final, official end to Hollywood labour’s most tumultuous year in half a century, with two historic strikes that shook the industry.

Just over 38 per cent of members cast votes, SAG-AFTRA said. All 145,000 members could vote on the deal, not just the approximately 60,000 TV and movie actors who went on strike and work under the contract.

“I’m very happy with the result,” Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, SAG-AFTRA’s executive director and chief negotiator, told The Associated Press Tuesday night. “I think having almost an 80 per cent ‘yes’ vote with almost a 40 per cent turnout for our members, that’s really unprecedented for any kind of contract where it’s not just a unanimous chorus of yeses.”

Some members agreed.

“More ‘yes’ votes than I expected and very happy to see because despite loud voices of complaint on social media, it shows the membership is still strong and united,” ‘Can’t Hardly Wait’ actor Ethan Embry posted on X, formerly known as Twitter. “Back to work.”

Hollywood actress Jessica Chastain speaks about the Hollywood strikes that went on four months, bringing the industry to a halt
Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain voiced strong support for the deal. Image Credit: AFP

A rejection of the agreement would have meant a return to the bargaining table and, with that, the possibility of the actors going back on strike if leaders called for it.

The union had freed actors to return to work, declaring the strike over as soon as the tentative deal was struck Nov. 8 with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents studios, streaming services and production companies in union negotiations. Two days later, it was approved by the guild’s board with an 86 per cent vote.

“The AMPTP member companies congratulate SAG-AFTRA on the ratification of its new contract, which represents historic gains and protections for performers,” the AMPTP said in a statement Tuesday night. “With this vote, the industry and the jobs it supports will be able to return in full force.”

Control over the use of artificial intelligence was the most hard-fought issue in the long, methodical negotiations, and became the main driver of dissent during the voting.

“The reality is there are members who’ve spoken out a lot over the last three weeks about their concerns, primarily about artificial intelligence. I’m very, very mindful of them, and I consider their concerns legitimate,” Crabtree-Ireland said. “I also firmly believe that the approach we took to it and what we achieved in this negotiation were the best possible way to address AI at this time with these companies and in this industry.”

The deal breaker

SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher told The Associated Press shortly after the resolution was reached that making sure AI reproductions of actors could only be used with their informed consent and compensation was a “deal breaker” in the talks.

But they did not fight hard enough for some prominent members, including actors Justine Bateman and Matthew Modine, who cited the issue as a reason to vote “no,” and stoked fears many voters would follow their lead.

“I cannot endorse a contract that compromises the independence and financial futures of the performers,” Modine, who ran against Drescher for union president in 2021 and was also among the board members to reject the deal, said in a statement. “It is purposefully vague and demands union members to release their autonomy.... Consent is surrender.”

But many other prominent actors voiced strong support for the agreement, including Academy Award winner Jessica Chastain and Colman Domingo , who is getting major Oscars buzz this year for his performance in “ Rustin .”

Colman Domingo
'I believe that we have an incredible deal,' says Colman Domingo. Image Credit: X/colmandomingo

“I believe that we have an incredible deal, I believe it’s thoughtful and it’s about moving the needle forward,” Domingo told the AP last week. “I’m very happy with it. I voted yes.”

Crabtree-Ireland emphasized that members were happy with the deal’s financial gains.

“If we set aside the AI issue, it would have been ratified by 99 per cent of members probably,” he said.

The contract calls for a 7 per cent general pay increase with further hikes coming in the second and third years of the deal.

The deal also includes a hard-won provision that temporarily derailed talks: the creation of a fund to pay performers for future viewings of their work on streaming services, in addition to traditional residuals paid for the showing of movies or series.

The provision is an attempt to bring payment systems in line with an industry now dominated by streaming, a reality that is almost certain to fuel more labour fights — and possibly more strikes — in the coming years.