Video Game Companies Respond as SAG-AFTRA Sets Strike Date

SAG AFTRA HQ Signage - P 2015

SAG AFTRA HQ Signage - P 2015

Negotiations begun more than 18 months ago have yet to yield a new video game deal, but the union's low, 25 percent market share may limit its leverage.

SAG-AFTRA's board of directors voted unanimously Sunday to set a strike date against video game employers for Friday, Oct. 21, at 12:01 a.m., in what a spokesman for the companies called "precipitous, unnecessary and an action that will only harm their membership," adding that the companies "will continue to attempt to reach a fair and equitable contract despite the union leadership's most recent threatened labor action."

Depending on the outcome of interactive negotiations Monday through Wednesday this week, SAG-AFTRA said it will strike the following video game employers: Activision Publishing Inc.; Blindlight LLC; Corps of Discovery Films; Disney Character Voices Inc.; Electronic Arts Productions Inc.; Formosa Interactive LLC; Insomniac Games Inc.; Interactive Associates Inc.; Take 2 Interactive Software; VoiceWorks Productions Inc.; and WB Games Inc.

Unless a deal is reached during bargaining sessions scheduled for the first part of this week, all games that went into production after Feb. 17, 2015, for the aforementioned employers will be struck, the union said. The board's strike vote comes a year after members authorized the action in what was a to-date unsuccessful ratcheting up of pressure on the industry.

"Through many months of bargaining with interactive employers, we have not reached a fair agreement covering SAG-AFTRA performers working in video games — often the most popular games in the world," SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris said. "Our members have been clear, now is the time for employers to negotiate a modern contract that covers this highly profitable industry."

Several hours later, the companies fired back.

"We have negotiated in good faith for the past 18 months with SAG-AFTRA union leaders, and are making progress toward a new contract," said the companies' spokesman. "We are deeply disappointed to learn today of the Union's threatened strike and its unilateral violation of the mutually agreed upon 'news black-out' on negotiation discussions. … We consider the Union's threatened labor action to call a strike precipitous, unnecessary and an action that will only harm their membership. SAG-AFTRA represents performers in less than 25 percent of the video games on the market. Any strike would not only deny SAG-AFTRA's membership work, but this would also give their competitors, who do not engage union talent, a leg up while any strike would be in place."

In addition, said the companies, "[Our] upcoming games are already in production and the majority will be unaffected by any SAG-AFTRA strike due to the nature of the 'no strike provisions' of the collective bargaining agreement. We anticipate minimal impact on current and near-future game releases."

But the union views things quite differently.

"We have received a clear and unambiguous message from the community who work this agreement that the situation they face has become intolerable," said SAG-AFTRA national executive director David White. "We are always prepared to reach a fair deal with employers, but they must play their part. It is a serious decision to conclude that a job action of this magnitude is necessary, and we hope that we can reach a fair deal before the deadline set by the board. But make no mistake: If we are unable to find a way to address the minimum needs of our members, we will go on strike as planned."

A union information sheet identified the key issues as:

Secondary Compensation. Video game performers don't receive residuals. The union says it's asking for a bonus for each principal performer equal to the session fee for every 2 million copies or downloads sold, or 2 million unique subscribers to online-only games, with a cap at 8 million units or subscribers.

Stunt Safety. The union says that video game employers often do not hire the required stunt coordinator on set, putting performance capture and stunt performers at safety risks.

Transparency. SAG-AFTRA has proposed that the actual project title and role should be made available before signing a contract, information that the union says is often withheld and which would allow the performer to make a meaningful decision about whether to accept a role and to negotiate appropriate compensation.

Vocal Safety. According to the union, an increasing number of SAG-AFTRA voiceover artists report medical disorders – including fainting in sessions, tasting blood, vomiting, losing their voice for a day up to several weeks, permanently losing their vocal range and other vocal disorders – resulting from their video game work due to the intensity of the vocal demands, such as simulating painful deaths, creature voices, battle sounds, and screams and shrieks, with significant force and explosive vibration. The union, which previously complained to California authorities, has proposed that vocally stressful sessions be reduced from the current four-hour session to a two-hour session without a loss of pay.

(The employer countered, "Although the Companies have had only one report of workplace injury due to vocal stress, the Companies have continued to look to ways to reduce the burdens on performers in this area through the more flexible work scheduling and other innovative work arrangements.")

Failure to Bargain Seriously. The union says that the video game companies have said no to most of SAG-AFTRA's proposals and haven't taken these negotiations seriously.

Out-of-Date Contract. SAG-AFTRA Interactive Contract was originally written in 1994, and the union says it's out of date in light of the changes in the industry over the last two decades.

"We need a contract that fits the needs of our members working in video games," said SAG-AFTRA chief contracts officer Ray Rodriguez. "So far employers have been unwilling to meet us even close to where the needs of our members are."

The employers responded, "The existing contract … pays all performers more than $100 an hour plus benefits and most performers many times that. The Companies' current proposals on the negotiation table includes wage increases for most performers and additional avenues for compensation that could yield many hundreds of dollars more in payments for limited integration and ratification bonuses. … SAG-AFTRA's website is inaccurate and out of date and does not reflect offers, some of which have been on the table for more than a year."

In other news, the union board took a variety of other actions, including extending White's contract to 2020 as previously reported, and received a number of reports, including one from White on a pilot program for direct deposit of residuals.

Rodriguez also announced that the union's TV/Theatrical Wages and Working Conditions (W&W) process — in which SAG-AFTRA leadership gather member input for upcoming contract negotiations — will commence Oct. 25 and conclude on or about Nov. 17, 2016. All three above-the-line unions' contracts expire the middle of next year, and the SAG-AFTRA timing suggests that the DGA is likely to begin formal negotiations shortly, as that union frequently negotiates first and generally prefers to do so six months or more prior to contract expiration.