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Rain-filled skies gave way to sun on Monday as the first few SAG-AFTRA members arrived at the Playa Vista offices of Electronic Arts to picket in support of the union’s strike against the nearly $100 billion video game industry.
As the picketers trickled in, they donned black union T-shirts, picked up white signs and at around 10:30 a.m. began to march, shouting a rotating selection of tried-and-true chants, including: “What do we want? Fair contracts. When do we want them? Now. What do we want? Transparency. When do we want it? Now.”
The four-day-old strike centers around compensation for actors who lend their voices, complete stunts and perform motion capture work for hugely popular titles released by EA, Activision Blizzard and other gaming companies. During its most recent contract renegotiation, which began about two years ago, SAG-AFTRA asked the video game employers to adopt an agreement that would guarantee voice actors residuals from successful games. Among other key negotiating points was a demand for increased transparency around the projects actors are hired to work on, including the title of the game, which is often withheld to avoid leaks to press.
SAG-AFTRA began striking against EA, Activision Blizzard, Insomniac Games, WB Games and seven other video game employers on Friday after the negotiating committee felt that talks last week would not lead to a new deal between the union and the employers.
“It’s been two years of negotiating a contract where we’re not getting movement from the employers in a way that’s meaningful,” SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris told The Hollywood Reporter as chants of “2-4-6-8, performers’ rights will not wait” echoed behind her. “This is a multi billion-dollar industry. These are employers who should know better.”
Added SAG-AFTRA chief contracts officer Ray Rodriguez: “We exhausted all our options. After two years of banging our head on the wall and being unable to break through on some key issues — ones that our members have told us, in effect, ‘Don’t come back to us unless you’ve achieved something on these points’ — we haven’t been able to get the employers to compromise with us.”
During the two hours that union members were picketing, their numbers swelled from 50 to well over 200, with supporters including Hollywood Boulevard performers dressed as Wolverine and Captain America and red-shirted members of the Writers Guild of America.
Meanwhile, across town in a Century City high-rise, the lawyer for the video game companies held a press conference to contest the notion that his clients had not met SAG-AFTRA’s demands.
“My clients and I believe that this is an unfortunate situation and an unnecessary strike that is actually being undertaken against the very companies in the video game industry that have the best relationship with SAG-AFTRA and its members and value its members perhaps the most,” Barnes & Thornburg’s Scott Witlin told the small crowd of press that had assembled in his office conference room.
He explained that the residual payments SAG-AFTRA is requesting are “not appropriate in this industry,” calling them “unfair to the vast majority of employees who work on the game” and who receive standard paychecks for their work. “We want to reward these people,” said Witlin, adding that the employers had agreed to a 9 percent wage increase as well as a new bonus structure designed to reward additional work. Other concessions included providing more transparency about projects, such as a description of the genre, project code name and information about whether the performer would be reprising a previous role.
But negotiating committee member Phil LaMarr explained that the union’s sticking point isn’t about how much talent is compensated but the structure of that compensation. “All of the other entertainment industries understand that in order to have a pool of artists at the ready to do the work that you need them to do, secondary payments are usually part of that,” he said. “We’re not saying it has to be a certain way, but they won’t even discuss with us a way to make that work. It’s like saying, ‘We don’t eat pork, so we can’t even have a pig in the house.’”
SAG-AFTRA’s strike is the first in Hollywood since the WGA’s crippling 2007 protest. Witlin believes it could have been avoided. “The money that we’ve put on the table and what SAG-AFTRA is asking for is essentially the same,” he said. “There are negligible differences but we believe that those differences, if put to a vote of the members, the members would not feel that they were worth striking over.”
The way forward is for both parties to negotiate and come to a compromise. “SAG has asked us if we will sit down and meet with them again,” Witlin said. “I’m not sure that meeting with them will be productive.”
Back in Playa Vista, as the crowd of picketers continued their march, invigorated by the honks of passing cars, SAG-AFTRA’s Rodriguez was hopeful. “These employers, whether they are acknowledging it now or not, they need our members,” he said. “They are investing tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars into producing these games. The idea that they are going to do voices and motion capture and stunts with less than the best really doesn’t add up. Ultimately we’re going to find a compromise with these guys that respects our members and gives us what we need to get off this strike and make a deal.”
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