SAG-AFTRA video game performer strike vote, explained

On Oct. 21, 2016, video game performers went on strike against 11 video game companies, including Activision, Disney, Electronic Arts, Insomniac Games, Take-Two Interactive, and WB Games. Video game performers who were part of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) stopped working for nearly a year, from October 2016 to November 2017 — the longest strike in SAG-AFTRA’s history.

After roughly 340 days, video game performers reached an agreement with the group of video game companies, addressing concerns over pay, transparency, and vocal stress. The three-year agreement was expected to expire in 2020, but the contract was extended twice, to 2022 and to 2023.

After six years, SAG-AFTRA members and at least 10 video game companies are heading back to the bargaining table once again on Sept. 26 — and SAG-AFTRA is hoping to start the negotiations with a strike authorization in its hands. SAG-AFTRA said on Sept. 1, when its national board voted to authorize the strike vote, that video game companies haven’t addressed issues about wages keeping up with inflation, nor have they introduced protections against AI use.

A strike authorization vote doesn’t mean that video game performers are definitely going on strike again. Instead, it signals to the group of video game companies negotiating with SAG-AFTRA that union members are serious about getting a fair contract — so serious that they’re willing to withhold their labor for it, if need be.

Should SAG-AFTRA video game performers end up going on strike, though, they’ll join colleagues striking for a new TV, theatrical, and streaming contract; those SAG-AFTRA members went on strike on July 14, joining TV and movie writers with the Writers Guild of America who’ve been on the picket line (but have reached a tentative agreement as of Sept. 24).

Who qualifies under SAG-AFTRA’s video game performer contract?

SAG-AFTRA, as a whole, represents approximately 160,000 people across TV, movies, media, commercials, and video games. As of 2016, 6,000 of those 160,000 union members did enough work on video games to vote on the 2016 strike authorization.

The union’s Interactive Media Agreement covers video game performers who do voice-over, motion capture and stunts, singing, dancing, puppeteering, and background performances. SAG-AFTRA’s union structure is the same as other Hollywood unions — not like unions at video game companies themselves. Video game performers typically do contract work on several different projects across several different studios; for instance, video game voice actor Ashly Burch plays Aloy in Guerrilla Games’ Horizon Zero Dawn and Chloe Price in Don’t Nod’s Life Is Strange, but she isn’t an employee of either of those companies. SAG-AFTRA standardizes contracts between those different companies and the voice actors contracted by them, whereas a traditional union represents employees from a single company.

What companies is SAG-AFTRA negotiating with?

The SAG-AFTRA website lists 10 “signatory video game companies” that will bargain with the union when negotiations start up again on Tuesday. Those companies are:

  • Activision Productions Inc.
  • Blindlight LLC
  • Disney Character Voices Inc.
  • Electronic Arts Productions Inc.
  • Epic Games, Inc.
  • Formosa Interactive LLC
  • Insomniac Games Inc.
  • Take 2 Productions Inc.
  • VoiceWorks Productions Inc.
  • WB Games Inc.

Several of these companies are video game publishers and developers, like Activision Blizzard, Epic Games, Electronic Arts, Insomniac Games, and WB Games. Companies like Formosa Interactive and Blindlight, owned by Keywords Studios, provide creative and production services to other studios, offering resources like art, audio, and other forms of assistance.

Disney Character Voices, which is a subsidiary of The Walt Disney Company, and VoiceWorks Productions specialize in casting and production for voice-over work.

What’s a strike authorization vote?

In early September, SAG-AFTRA leadership asked its members to authorize a strike ahead of upcoming contract negotiations. Over the past few weeks, eligible SAG-AFTRA members have been casting votes ahead of the Sept. 25 deadline. The purpose of the vote is to see if union members are willing to strike if negotiations for the new contract go badly.

SAG-AFTRA and the video game companies have extended the old contract for years now, and negotiations for the new one have been ongoing over that time; those negotiations will resume again from Sept. 26 to Sept. 28. Union leaders want the strike authorization in hand when the negotiations recommence to show the video game companies that the performers are serious about getting a fair contract.

A successful strike authorization vote doesn’t mean a strike will happen, but it means it could.

What are the big issues?

SAG-AFTRA members are looking for wage increases that keep up with inflation: “11% retroactive to expiration and 4% increases in the second and third years of the agreement,” according to SAG-AFTRA.

Another big sticking point is the currently unrestricted use of AI — both in regard to voice acting and to performance capture. “The voice and performance capture artists who bring video game characters to life deserve a contract that reflects the value they bring to the multibillion-dollar gaming industry,” SAG-AFTRA executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said. “Voice and performance capture AI are already among the most advanced uses of AI: the threat is here and it is real. Without contractual protections, the employers are asking performers to unknowingly participate in the extinction of their artistry and livelihoods.”

SAG-AFTRA is also looking to boost safety measures on set for on-camera and stunt performers, including a mandated five-minute rest each hour, something off-camera performers are already getting. The union is also calling for medics to be present on set for stunts or other “hazardous work,” as well as for the contract to include protections against vocal stress, and a removal of any requirement for actors to perform stunts during self-taped auditions.

Audrey Cooling, representing the video game companies, told Polygon that SAG-AFTRA and the companies have reached “tentative agreements” for more than half of the contract proposals.

“We will continue to negotiate in good faith to reach an agreement that reflects the important contributions of SAG-AFTRA-represented performers in video games,” Cooling said. “We have reached tentative agreements on over half of the proposals and are optimistic we can find a resolution at the bargaining table.”

However, SAG-AFTRA said that the companies have “failed to address” several critical terms for the new contract.

When would the strike happen? How long could it last?

A strike may not happen. The best-case scenario is that SAG-AFTRA and the video game companies will agree on a fair contract, and no strike will be necessary. For a strike to happen, several qualifications have to be met. First, the union leadership needs to initiate a strike authorization vote. This has already happened with SAG-AFTRA; leadership unanimously agreed to ask members to participate in a strike authorization vote.

SAG-AFTRA leadership then sent voting information cards to eligible members on Sept. 5, with a voting deadline of Sept. 25. Members have been voting over this time to declare whether they’d be open to striking should the need arise. If the majority of members vote yes, then a strike would be authorized. But this still doesn’t mean that there will be a strike. The “yes” votes tell union leadership that members would be willing to strike, and negotiators can then take that to the bargaining table. Negotiations are scheduled for this week. If they go poorly, there’s a chance that SAG-AFTRA will initiate a strike.

The last video game performer strike lasted for nearly a year as SAG-AFTRA and 11 companies struggled to agree on a contract. It’s a huge deal for workers to withhold labor and to agree, collectively, not to work; a strike would have a major impact on their lives. But that’s also what makes it such a powerful tool — it signals just how serious union members are about securing a fair deal.

What does this mean for video games?

Not much, yet. Negotiations are ongoing, and it’s possible that the video game companies will be able to meet SAG-AFTRA’s expectations of a fair contract. But if SAG-AFTRA video game performers do go on strike, the impact will be different than that of the TV and movie actors’ and writers’ strikes. Video game development takes a long, long time — typically much longer than your average TV show or movie takes to produce.

A potential strike would definitely disrupt parts of video game production, but it’s unclear whether that would translate into significant delays on video game production timelines. There’s a lot of development work to be done outside of performance — and plenty to do to even get to that point.

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