In August 2020, the members of SAG-AFTRA, the union that represents roughly 160,000 actors, broadcast journalists, stunt performers, dancers, and, more recently, influencers, were stunned by a bombshell revelation. Several months into the pandemic-induced work hiatus, union leadership announced that residual earnings—the checks that actors receive whenever the work they’re featured in airs—would no longer count toward qualifying for the union’s health care plan for nearly all members over 65.
The restructuring, which included a hike in the earnings threshold to qualify, stripped health insurance from almost 12,000 people—many of them older actors, for whom residuals can make up an entire paycheck. Nineties icon Sharon Stone announced that she’d lost her health care coverage after coming up $13 short; Ed Asner, the former president of SAG, filed a class-action lawsuit anticipating the same. It all seemed like a sign that something was seriously awry. “That is a very, very bad headline for a union to have,” said Kate Fortmueller, an entertainment and media studies professor at the University of Georgia.
Abbott Elementary costar and recent Emmy winner Sheryl Lee Ralph was incensed to learn that one of her coworkers would be stripped of his insurance at a time when he needed a hip replacement. Ralph, who remembers learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in grade school, values her SAG-AFTRA card. “It was a huge deal for me, as a young Black person, to be in the union, to work the way that I have worked, doing the roles that I have done,” she told The Nation. “You had to fight for that.” To Ralph, the news was a betrayal of those who had paved the way for her achievements. “We cannot sit by and act like it’s OK,” she said. Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA’s leadership argued that these modifications were unavoidable after Covid’s work disruptions triggered an existential financial crisis at the union. “This was the result of a perfect storm,” said Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, the union’s current executive director and chief negotiator.
“Perfect storm” is an apt summation of SAG-AFTRA’s current circumstances. The US labor movement is enjoying a moment of renewed attention and vigor, but the conditions for workers remain dire, and actors—even the very famous ones—are workers. “Labor laws are tilted so much in favor of corporations,” emboldening them to “fire people and harass and intimidate them when they want to join a union,” said AFL-CIO president Liz Shuler. Though the demand for content has never been higher, the people who make that content have never been more devalued. Since the 1960s, residuals have been an important source of income for actors, and the rise of streaming services, which provide lower and less frequent residuals, has rocked the industry. Meanwhile, a new wave of consolidations has made Hollywood’s already behemoth companies even more powerful.
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Despite these crushing external pressures, the health care debacle was immediately interpreted as yet another battle in the internecine war raging within the union. To Membership First, the smaller of SAG-AFTRA’s two main factions, the blame lay squarely with Unite for Strength, the ruling party, whose leadership had negotiated the changes—and who had originally pushed for the merger between SAG and AFTRA that arguably created the first cracks in the health care plan. (Asner’s lawsuit alleged that the union’s trustees had said combining the two unions’ plans would only bolster their strength; instead, it did the opposite.) “Saying that we cannot do it means, quite simply, we do not want to do it,” said Ralph, who successfully ran for the Los Angeles local’s board on the Membership First ticket as a result of the health care changes. “And that’s not right.”
The fallout was far-reaching. In the summer of 2021, Gabrielle Carteris, the union’s embattled president, announced that she would not be seeking reelection. The factions put forward their own candidates for her replacement: The Nanny’s Fran Drescher on one side, Full Metal Jacket’s Matthew Modine on the other. Though Drescher staked her platform on unity, she had to choose a side—it’s virtually impossible to get elected otherwise—and she chose Unite for Strength. Her campaign was duly met with skepticism by the followers of Membership First, who highlighted the actor’s lack of labor experience; people felt that she’d been recruited because of her name recognition rather than her negotiating chops. Nonetheless, in September 2021, Drescher emerged victorious in an election rife with what Fortmueller described as “ridiculous mudslinging.”
This year, on June 30, the union’s contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers expires, and a contentious set of negotiations will kick off in the coming months. Drescher has promised to facilitate a rapprochement between SAG-AFTRA’s divided factions and has spoken of “unlocking the shackles” that streaming places on performers. “To recognize a system is broken and to be unafraid to dismantle and rebuild is something I tend to obsess on,” she told The Nation. To effectively do battle with the studios, SAG-AFTRA needs to heal the wounds of years past and recover a measure of solidarity. Otherwise, it risks ceding critical ground on streaming residuals, AI, and more—with repercussions for generations of working actors to come. “This union…has the possibility of great strength,” Ralph said. “And we’re going to find it as soon as we put egos aside and see the much bigger picture.”
Before running for president of SAG-AFTRA, Drescher was best known for her role as the creator and star of the beloved 1990s sitcom The Nanny. The show is a dramedy of class relations: Upstairs, Downstairs on laughing gas. Over the course of six seasons, stuffy Brahmin widower Maxwell Sheffield (played by Charles Shaughnessy) falls in love with heroine Fran Fine and her chatty, rambunctious charm. An early episode, in which Fran and Mr. Sheffield unwittingly step into an active picket line, makes the class divide explicit. Sheffield, a Broadway producer, breezes past to attend the after-party for his show, but Fran refuses to go inside. Standing with the workers on strike, she protests that if she did, her aunt “would roll over in her grave—which was paid for by her union.”
Drescher based many elements of The Nanny on her own life, even fighting the network and its sponsors to keep the character Jewish. (Had they gotten their way, Fran would have been Italian.) Like her character, Drescher grew up in Queens with two working parents. She got her first job, as a supermarket cashier, at 14; met her life partner a year later; then dropped out of college to pursue acting while enrolled in cosmetology school. And like Fran Fine, Drescher is staunchly pro-union. “[Sheffield] was management and willing to cross the line,” Drescher said. “Fran was raised to always support labor.”
Drescher’s background always made her feel self-consciously different from her Hollywood peers—like a “gefilte fish out of water,” she has written. In Enter Whining, her first memoir, she recounted how the prospect of a ménage à trois with Warren Beatty and his then-girlfriend Isabelle Adjani triggered her sense of “the provincial, awkward, unsophisticated Flushing schlub who lived right beneath the surface of my Hollywood-actress veneer.”
It’s this sort of everywoman spirit that has wooed the Internet. After several of her emoji-laden posts “(We R all pawns of th ruling class”; “The only enemy is big biz greed! 👎 The election has awakened the revolutionaries! STOP CAPITALIST GREED NOW🚫 AND DON’T LET THEM DIVIDE OR DISTRACT US EVER AGAIN!”) caught the attention of bloggers in 2017, Drescher doubled down, denouncing the rapaciousness of “the big-business ruling-class elite,” expressing sympathy with the Green Party, and implying that Bernie Sanders was a sellout for running as a Democrat in 2016. She was promptly anointed an “anti-capitalist icon” by New York magazine’s The Cut. In 2020, after she tweeted support for a general strike, it happened again—as one headline put it, “An Ode to Fran Drescher, My Lifelong Semi-Problematic Leftist Crush.”
“Anti-capitalist icon” may be overstating it, though. In reality, Drescher is more of a left-libertarian, leavened with some boomer liberalism and New Age spirituality—plus some old-school working-class values. The actor decries Monsanto and big-business elites, supports gun ownership and Israel, and has a wellness guru’s mistrust of vaccines. In 2015, she voiced approval for Hillary Clinton, then in 2016 called Sanders a “shill 4 Billary” and went on to support neither. Years of uterine cancer misdiagnoses instilled a deep skepticism of authority in her. She learned from her former partner, tech entrepreneur (and anti-vax campaigner) Shiva Ayyadurai, that “all the woes of the world have one common denominator, GREED.” (Ayyadurai’s election conspiracy claims are merely the latest in a long line of provocative statements).
For the most part, though, Drescher’s public-facing political work has been more mainstream. In 2005, she successfully lobbied Congress to get a gynecological-cancer education bill signed into law, which led to her appointment to public diplomacy positions under the Bush and Obama administrations, as well as the launch of her nonprofit, Cancer Schmancer, in 2007. She soon realized she had a knack for politics, and in 2008, she let it be known that she wanted to be considered to serve out the remainder of Hillary Clinton’s Senate term after Clinton left to become secretary of state. “My political ambitions have been long developing,” she said. Or, as she put it to SAG-AFTRA members while making her bid to be their next president: “My life has prepared me for this position.”
The union whose helm Drescher took over in 2021 is still in its messy infancy, but the two unions that merged to create it—the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Radio Artists—were founded in the 1930s. (The “T” in AFTRA came later, with the advent of television.) Drescher is now part of a lineage that includes the likes of Jimmy Cagney, Charlton Heston, and another actor with political aspirations: Ronald Reagan.
When the rise of digital technology obliterated any last hopes of distinguishing between SAG’s and AFTRA’s shares of the television market, forcing them into direct competition, the bloc within SAG that would eventually become Unite for Strength, Drescher’s party, decided that the two unions would be better off negotiating with one voice. Otherwise, said Jonathan Handel, an entertainment and labor lawyer and journalist who has covered the union extensively for The Hollywood Reporter, “you’re going to have a race to the bottom; you’re going to have competition between the unions that the producers [and] studios can take advantage of.” (Handel has served as outside counsel to SAG-AFTRA in the past; he is quoted here in his individual capacity.) Many disagreed. There was a failed merger attempt in 2002, followed by a grueling attempted joint contract negotiation in 2008, which ended with the two unions breaking their agreement and the Membership First–led SAG holding out for a better contract. SAG would end up working without a contract for months, losing the vast majority of new TV deals to AFTRA. “Militancy only takes you so far if you don’t have a Plan B,” Handel said.
As a result, Unite for Strength won control of SAG later that year, leading to a successful, if fraught, merger in 2012. At the vote, members sang “We Shall Overcome,” replacing the titular invocation with “SAG and AFTRA as one.” This togetherness wouldn’t last. Membership First supporters never forgave AFTRA for, in their view, capitulating during the 2008 contract negotiation—or Unite for Strength for embracing AFTRA. “There’s very little trust between the two sides,” Handel said. Membership First, which controls the LA local’s board, tends to dismiss Unite for Strength as insufficiently militant and obsessed with PR. To Unite for Strength, which has been in power nationally since 2008, Membership First’s modus operandi is ill-considered and self-sabotaging—look no further than the 2008 negotiations. The result: an interminable contretemps. “I was ready to quit after every [national] board meeting—like, this is untenable, just as a human being,” said LA local president Jodi Long.
These divisions still rankle, even as many elected members I spoke with expressed a desire to transcend them. “We have a lot of the same people in leadership today that were part of all of those traumatic experiences, and they cannot and refuse to communicate with each other,” said Shaan Sharma, a self-described independent who runs on the Membership First slate and who created the grassroots group Solidarity. “We have kind of a running joke that there are more Middle East peace conferences between the Palestinians and the Israelis than there are between the opposing sides within our union.”
This squabbling can be especially irksome to the many SAG-AFTRA members who are far from LA and barely scraping by. Zinnia Su, a former Seattle local board member, has earned good money from commercial work in the past, but these days she doesn’t make anywhere near enough from acting to qualify for union health insurance. Though she and others she knows remain members because they “really believe in the values of organized labor,” Su said, she doesn’t have the sense that there’s much focus from SAG-AFTRA’s leadership on the union’s struggling members or the particular plight of actors in areas with fewer opportunities.
To Su, it’s very clear who has benefited from SAG-AFTRA’s factionalism—and it hasn’t been SAG-AFTRA. “When you look at who’s trying to bust up a union, it’s not usually the workers involved in the industry,” she said. “It’s the bosses, right?… And so, in our industry, the bosses are the studios. The bosses are the big distributors and media conglomerates.”
When Drescher was elected president of SAG-AFTRA in September 2021, she went from playing one of television’s working-class darlings to helming one of the world’s largest entertainment labor guilds. But not without a fight. During the election, the two factions faced off once again, sometimes in petty ways—at one point, Charles Shaughnessy (The Nanny’s Mr. Sheffield) publicly endorsed Matthew Modine, which felt barbed. Unite for Strength accused Membership First of “harboring” board members linked to the NXIVM cult as well as some who’d threatened to shoot supporters of vaccine requirements. “We have no response to this bullshit,” a Membership First spokesperson told Deadline. “Let them name names, and they better start putting all of their properties in trust.”
Meanwhile, a Membership First representative was elected as the national secretary/treasurer, resulting in a split ticket. A subsequent round of elections ushered in a wave of Unite for Strength leadership—people with too much baggage, in Sharma’s eyes. “[Drescher] had very little time to try to get up to speed on how everything works before some really important positions were gonna be filled,” Sharma said. “She didn’t realize—or she wasn’t knowledgeable enough at that particular moment to know—how it would be seen by so many of us. The people that she’s been relying on, many of them are part of this old ruling regime.”
But in the years since the ugliness of the 2021 elections, something unlikely has transpired: The ice has begun to thaw. Long, Sharma, and Ralph, all of whom supported Drescher’s opponent, have been pleasantly surprised by her performance thus far. Perhaps more important, they seem willing to give her a chance. “Fran is fresh,” Ralph said. “Fran is not going to be a puppet. Fran has her own mind; Fran is going to take her time to figure things out. And how do you not at least try to help her do that?”
It boils down to something simple and impossible to fake: People like her. (The effect may not persist over distance; Su said she hasn’t detected much change since Drescher took office, and there is a vocal online minority of union members who are strongly critical of her leadership.) “She’s a connector,” Shuler said regarding Drescher and the AFL-CIO, which has worked closely with SAG-AFTRA on labor and technology issues in recent years. “Being a labor leader, it’s so important to be able to build relationships and find points of unity and get everybody on the same page…. I think she’s uniquely positioned to do that.”
“For me, the only true opposition in a labor union are the employers,” Drescher said. “I always say: Don’t tell me the histrionics and the ‘he said, she said’ of years past. It’s difficult for some people to let go of past conflicts, but…there is opportunity in that.”
During the Writers Guild’s most recent above-the-line negotiations, which took place in 2020, people thought a strike was imminent. Then the pandemic hit. As sets closed down, the negotiations were cut short and contracts were quickly finalized. By the time SAG-AFTRA commenced virtual contract talks in late April, the industry was at a standstill. “You don’t have strike power if you’re not working,” Fortmueller said. With so much unresolved tension, and with the writers likelier than ever to walk off the job this year, she predicted that the coming contract negotiations would be “especially fraught.”
In the intervening years, streaming has only become more dominant, while box-office profits are down billions from the industry’s pre-pandemic earnings. Last summer, a separate contract negotiation with Netflix acted as a trial run for this spring, including how to handle residuals. To Sharma, the Netflix results showed that Drescher has made good on her promises of unity. “For the first time in many years, the negotiating committee, led by Fran, and with people from both factions on it, worked together very well,” he said. “It was the most harmonious contract presentation I can remember in a national board meeting.”
Whether or not this will translate in material terms for the coming contract negotiations is another matter—according to Sharma, the deal itself was disappointing. “It mainly served those at the top who are already working,” he said. “The union is serving them ahead of the 85 percent of our membership that are aspirational, trying to support themselves with their acting.”
The writers’ and directors’ guilds are also negotiating this spring, the only time they’re permitted to walk off the job. “All three unions—with a slight two-month delay for the writers—could go on strike at the same time,” Handel said. “That would be enough to bring crushing pressure on management to get all sorts of improvements.”
Such solidarity is in short supply these days, but it might be the only way to face off against an increasingly powerful studio system. “The last time the unions got something huge, it didn’t take a strike; it took two strikes concurrently,” Handel said. Established writers and actors gave up on the possibility of earning residuals from nearly all films made before 1960. In return, they got their pension plan, the health care plan, and the agreement that movies played on television would also generate residuals. Those actors didn’t just achieve a huge contract victory; they inspired a new generation of labor leadership. “The people before me in the ’60s, the James Cagneys and the Connie Stevenses who gave up their residuals…that’s the only reason why I ever got involved with the union,” Long said.
After the election, Long and Drescher took their dogs for a walk on the beach. “We have to fight for what is right for our members. I don’t care about appeasing the other side,” Long said. “I really don’t. And I think Fran’s that way too.” Long pondered a diplomatic way to phrase what she wanted to say on the record. Laughing, she settled on: “We’re both from Queens.”