Entertainment Weekend: Actors and writers on strike rally in Philadelphia and Chicago as union action spreads

Striking screenwriters and actors held rallies in Philadelphia and Chicago on Thursday as the labor dispute that has halted Hollywood spreads to more cities.

While Los Angeles and New York are the epicenters of strike actions, there are dozens of mid-sized and small locals across the country representing performers and writers.

“We have the same issues,” said Nikki Izanec, president of the Philadelphia SAG-AFTRA local, on her way to Thursday’s rally. “Lots of people pay attention to L.A. and New York, but our issues are the same as theirs.”

The Philadelphia rally at Love Park drew actors Sheryl Lee Ralph and Lisa Ann Walter, stars of the hit Philly-set TV show “Abbott Elementary.” Said Ralph: “Enough is enough and we demand more.” Actors David Morse and Brian Anthony Wilson also attended.

Leaders of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) voted unanimously last week to start striking, joining the Writers Guild of America, who walked out on May 2.

“We’re the voices of multi-trillion dollar TV theatrical streaming industry. And we all have a common goal, and that’s to make living wages in an industry that takes advantage of us,” said Izanec.

In Chicago, hundreds of strikers — many wearing black SAG T-shirts — marched and chanted at Millennium Park. “We’re union/United/Never be divided.” A small brass band accompanied the strikers and at one point played ”This Land Is Your Land.” One sign read: “Corporate Greed Stinks.” Cars honked their horns in support. Many unions were represented, including Teamsters and teachers.

The unions and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — which represents studios, streamers and production companies — seem far apart, with no negotiations happening or planned.

“I feel like people would be surprised to hear that 87% of our members make under $26,000 a year, and that’s just under the amount that they need to qualify for health care. So that’s a national problem,” said Izanec.

Film and TV sets dot America. Cities like Chicago with shows like “Chicago Med,” “Chicago PD,” and “The Chi” have stopped filming until the strike is resolved. There were more than 30 major productions in Massachusetts last year. Strikers took to the street in Boston on Wednesday.

In Chicago, Courtney Rioux, a SAG-AFTRA member since 2010 who has had roles in “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire” and “Chicago PD,” took to the podium to rally fellow actors and writers to fight for protections from artificial intelligence and revenue from streaming.

“The whole business model has changed and our contract has not changed with it,” she said. “It’s billions of dollars in streaming and they’re crying broke.”

The rallies outside New York and Los Angeles are an important step to showing that many of the issues the actors and writers are fighting for are global ones, she said.

“We get so upset that people are saying Hollywood actors are on strike,” Rioux said. “We are not Hollywood actors. We are working class actors.”

“I think they’re saying Hollywood actors, because people have the feeling of like, ‘Oh, Hollywood actors are millionaires and they make so much money and they’re greedy.’ No, 86% of our members can’t qualify for health care.”

Disney CEO Bob Iger warned last week that it was not a good time for a strike, arguing that the entertainment industry’s recovery from the pandemic is not complete.

Izanec replied that she resents the fact that the average WGA member makes $69,000 a year and Iger makes $74,000 a day. “Most of us know that we’re performers and we’re middle class people. We’re trying to be middle class workers,” she said.

Key issues for both unions include residual payments, which have been nearly wiped out by the switch to the streaming system, and the unpaid use of their work and likeness by artificial intelligence avatars.

The AMPTP said it has offered fair terms on those and other issues.

In Los Angeles, strikers outside Netflix studios included Sarah Silverman, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Witaske and Kendrick Sampson. Kristen Schaal was seen on a picket line outside Disney studios.

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