SAG-AFTRA Pickets Insomniac Games as Video Game Strike Continues

SAG-AFTRA Pickets Insomniac Games - H - 2016
Jonathan Handel

It’s the third picket line in the month-old action.

Death screams are still on strike, and so are the actors who voice them for unionized video game companies. Roughly 350 SAG-AFTRA performers and their supporters on Thursday picketed Insomniac Games in Burbank, as the union’s month-old video game job action continued with no resolution in sight.

The picketers, who included actors responsible for voicing and doing performance-capture work for top games, are focused on a handful of issues, notably a proposal for residual-like backend compensation. The companies have refused that demand.

“We’re looking for protections and some kind of share in profitability,” SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris told The Hollywood Reporter as picketers from her union and several others marched past.

The union is looking for backend compensation akin to box-office bonuses found in some theatrical talent deals. The companies countered with upfront bonuses instead, and the union responded by offering to allow the companies to buy out the backend with upfront bonuses.

Those buyouts are virtually identical to what the companies put on the table in the form of upfront bonuses, meaning that employers would never actually have to pay a backend, but neither side will budge, because the concept of backend participation looms large for each side — a must-have for the union and a camel’s-nose-under-the-tent deal-breaker for the companies.

“It is inexplicable that SAG-AFTRA will not permit a democratic vote on a contract that currently offers its members an immediate 9 percent wage increase and Additional Compensation of up to $950 per game,” said the companies’ chief negotiator, entertainment labor attorney Scott Witlin of Barnes & Thornburg. “How will the members feel when they lose that offer because SAG-AFTRA did not permit a timely ratification?”

The union has previously pointed out that the strike was authorized by 97 percent of those who voted a year ago on the issue, and that its negotiating committees and board do not send out contracts for ratification if the committee and board don’t agree that the deal is fair. Those procedures are in accord with the union’s constitution — which, in fact, goes beyond legal requirements, since labor law doesn’t require that members be allowed to vote on contracts.

“After a month without being permitted to vote on the Companies’ Comprehensive and Enhanced Final Offer, it is not surprising that members want to see the strike come to a conclusion,” Witlin added, though it was not clear what he was responding to. “Nothing would please the Companies more than to have the talented SAG-AFTRA members back at work.”

In a statement, the union said that its members “want decades-old video game contract modernized,” but Witlin disputed that characterization.

“The agreement is not ‘decades-old,’” he told THR. “The most recent agreement was renegotiated in 2011 and the concepts that we have put on the table is a ground-breaking new form of compensation for performers. What SAG-AFTRA is asking for is replicating a decades-old structure that does not fit this modern industry.”

In addition to residual-like “secondary compensation,” other issues between the two sides include:

*Transparency: Performers often aren’t told in advance what game or character they’re working on, which not only keeps them in a peculiar if not demeaning darkness, but also inhibits their preparation, reduces their agents’ negotiating leverage and can lead to unknowingly agreeing to uncomfortably sexual or violent roles.

*Stunt coordinators. The performers say the companies often ignore the need for stunt coordinators on set, a matter of safety.

*Vocal stress. The performers assert that four-hour recording sessions of screaming, wailing and gnashing of teeth result in medical damage to their vocal cords that could be avoided.

As is typical in Hollywood contract disputes, upfront compensation is not a contentious issue. There appears to be agreement to increase session fees, for instance from $825 for a four-hour voice session to $900 at some point over the life of what would be a three-year contract renewal if the parties could agree to terms.

The picketing on Thursday included members of the American Federation of Musicians, the Writers Guild of America, IATSE, Teamsters and Unite Here, and came in the wake of a similar demonstration two weeks ago at WB Games, also in Burbank, that attracted 350 people and a 300-person picket 10 days before that across town at Electronic Arts in Playa Vista.

And what next? “We’re open to coming to the table when the employers are open to a serious negotiation,” said Carteris.

As THR has previously reported, various factors may drive an eventual resolution to the dispute. Next week, however, all concerned will decamp for Thanksgiving, and when the parties to this dispute will next talk turkey is unknown.