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What lessons can be learned from the 1980 actors strike?


Members of SAG-AFTRA braved the summer heat in New York and Los Angeles this weekend to picket outside major media companies and studio.





MARTÍNEZ: It's the first time since 1980 that actors from film and television shows have gone on strike. Now, back then, actors such as Robert Walden were just as adamant that they'd stick to it.


ROBERT WALDEN: I can't cross this picket line and feel like a human being and feel like a man. I can't do it. I can't function in my profession well unless I respect - have some dignity and respect about myself as a person.

MARTÍNEZ: That strike lasted about three months. It included a boycott of that year's Emmy Awards, prompting this joke about a soon-to-be U.S. president from co-host Steve Allen.


STEVE ALLEN: Who would have ever thought that all of us would live to see the day when Ronald Reagan would be the only actor working?


MARTÍNEZ: Ben Mankiewicz, host at Turner Classic Movies, is a Hollywood history buff whose family is one of the industry's best-known dynasties. When we talked earlier, I began by asking him what parallels he sees between the 1980s strike and today's.

BEN MANKIEWICZ: I think there are a lot of parallels. That was a inflection point in the business in 1980, and I think we're very clearly at another one now. You know, think back to 1980. There were three broadcast networks. You know, there were some local stations that would show old movies, maybe had some of their own programming. But cable was in its infancy, and home video was in its infancy. And that's really what the strike was about, was how to figure out how actors are going to get paid, the residuals that they're going to make from home video and then also how they're going to get paid when their movies show up on cable television.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And so even though it was a new thing, there was that sense - right? - that the actors knew that money was there to be made in the future.

MANKIEWICZ: That's right. William Schallert was the president of SAG then - you know, a veteran character actor. And even he admits that they didn't get a really good deal back in 1980. He said it caused him to lose the next SAG election to Ed Asner, who wasn't happy with the deal.


ED ASNER: I've been extremely dissatisfied with cable, which I regard as a total defeat.

MANKIEWICZ: That's where the parallels come in here. How do we account for streaming? There are no residuals in streaming. You know, I - it's a wonderful opportunity I have to occasionally talk to Mel Brooks, and he always complains, like, yeah, Netflix. Sure, they're paying Adam Sandler $200 million up front, but there's nothing on the back end.

MARTÍNEZ: When it comes to tactics that the unions, or even the studios, used in 1980, are there any that their counterparts today might be able to learn from?

MANKIEWICZ: There's a degree to which union tactics are - they're limited. Inevitably, what usually works in the union's favor is not a tactic that the union takes. It's when, at some point, there's a split among management, and some producers think we've got to get back to work, man.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, 1980, it was two separate unions that went on strike - SAG, the Screen Actors Guild, and AFTRA, the American Federation of TV and Radio Artists. Today, Ben, the unions are together as one, SAG-AFTRA. How much of a difference do you think that'll be this time around as opposed to how it was back in 1980?

MANKIEWICZ: Well, there's strength in numbers, so it's obviously better. And the merging of the unions was, I think, from a labor point of view, wise. It really began the merging of the unions out of that simultaneous strike in 1980, and that strike lasted a little over three months. So I think undoubtedly that will lead to a better deal for the actors. You know, I don't know if it'll lead to a good deal for the actors, but it'll lead to a better deal.

MARTÍNEZ: You mentioned how back then there were just - what? - three networks. There were no streaming services. There weren't many options for actors. Does that dynamic still apply today in that actors really have nowhere else to go to work?

MANKIEWICZ: Well, of course, now with the - so many cable channels and so many streaming services, you know, there's many, many, many more shows available. There are more jobs, certainly. But some shows run eight episodes, limited series. That's it. It's off the air. I watched a show on Netflix the last couple of days called "Treason." I liked it. I like spy shows. Five episodes - it's over. That's the end of that show. But it's going to be on Netflix for a long time.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. Any idea or any prediction, Ben, I mean, on how this might end or when it might end?

MANKIEWICZ: I think the fall television season is not what it once was, given the decline of cable and broadcast television and the increase of streaming services. So the desire to get a deal done by the middle of September is less. That said, the writers have been on strike already for a long time. So I think in the fall, early fall, there'll be some fissure among producers. And I think there'll be a desire of some significant people with weight to get back to work.

MARTÍNEZ: That's Ben Mankiewicz, host, Turner Classic Movies. Ben, thanks.

MANKIEWICZ: Nice to talk to you. Thanks.

MARTÍNEZ: And we'd like to note that Ben Mankiewicz told us that he is a member of SAG-AFTRA but not an active one. He said that he did not partake in the vote authorizing the current strike. Also, many of us at NPR are also members of SAG-AFTRA but work under a different contract and are not part of this strike. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
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