250 videogame actors picket EA, but publishers claim strike hinges on two-word phrase

SAG-AFTRA

Update October 25, 2016: Following Friday’s confirmation by the videogame actors’ union that their long-threatened strike would go ahead (see below), they’ve now taken action, but a statement by the publishers they target suggests an agreement could’ve been reached.

More than 250 people demonstrated peacefully outside Electronic Arts’ office in Playa Vista, California as part of SAG-AFTRA’s protest. The games publishers targeted by the strike, meanwhile, have released a statement in which they claim an agreement was substantially reached, but the union walked out over a matter of semantics.

Plenty of great new games have beaten the strike. Check out our list of the best PC games of 2016 (so far)

SAG-AFTRA is a US-based union representing videogame voice actors and mocap performers. They believe that eleven major AAA publishers, including EA, Activision, Take 2 and WB, employ videogame performers on the basis of outdated and unfair contracts, and are demanding that they are modernised in various ways.

Speaking with Deadline, SAG-AFTRA president Gabrielle Carteris made clear this was just the first step in its campaign: “this is a strike unlike any we’ve done before. We have different actions planned as we roll it out.”

The issue has been simmering for years, but came to a boil last week, with negotiations finally failing on Wednesday night. Barnes & Thornburg, the law firm representing the publishers, released copies of their last proposals yesterday afternoon, which they claim show an agreement had been substantially reached, with nearly no difference between the publishers’ and the union’s final proposals.

The sticking point seems to have been one of, essentially, terminology. The union demanded extra payments for performers based on the success of a game – similar to residual payments granted to actors for repeat showings of a successful TV show. This has been a red line for publishers, who say introducing a form of residual payment would upend the industry’s business model. Instead, the publishers offered “additional compensation” on top of a performer’s regular pay based on how many sessions they worked for each game.

The union countered the companies’ proposal with a nearly identical one, changing nothing about the money or how it was offered, but which replaced the phrase “additional compensation” with “residuals buyout”. By calling it this, says Deadline, “the union could make good on its promise to get residuals for videogame performers for the first time ever.”

Scott Witlin, the chief negotiator for the publishers, said “It would be unfortunate for SAG-AFTRA to take its members out on strike over terminology and not money… we urged union leaders to put the package to a vote of their membership, but union leaders refused.”

Update October 21, 2016:SAG-AFTRA, the union representing many US-based voice and motion capture videogame actors, is proceeding with its strike against some of the biggest publishers in the game industry. EA, Activision, Take 2 Interactive, Disney and WB are among the companies targeted.

In our original coverage (below) we listed the union’s major concerns, the biggest of which are transparency and secondary compensation. In a statement today, SAG-AFTRA says these concerns remain unresolved; companies still “refuse to tell the performer’s agent what game the actor will be working on.”

On secondary compensation – which would mean bonus payments if a game performs well – the union says employers made an offer to give actors an upfront bonus based on how many sessions they work. SAG-AFTRA says they are willing to consider this if secondary compensation is also an option: “In other words, an employer would have the option to buy out an actor by paying a bonus upfront or, if they prefer, they would have the option to pay a bonus after the game releases, if the game happens to sell more than two million units.” The employers refused.

The latest we’ve heard from the publishers targeted is a statement from Barnes & Thornburg, the law firm acting on their behalf, released yesterday. It mentions the aforementioned bonus based on sessions worked, and also says the performers were offered an immediate 9% wage hike, which SAG-AFTRA refused, and made no counteroffer.

SAG-AFTRA members will picket Electronic Arts in Los Angeles on Monday. If you’d like to read more about why this strike is happening, check out this flyer setting out SAG-AFTRA’s side of the argument.

Original story October 17, 2016: SAG-AFTRA, a US labour union claiming 160,000 members, of whom many work as actors in the games industry, has announced a strike on some of the world’s largest developers starting this Friday, October 21. This decision is the culmination of a dispute that has been ongoing for almost two years now.

Negotiations will continue throughout the first half of this week, but SAG-AFTRA says in its statement that “based on past experience, we are not confident management is willing to make the changes necessary to bring this contract up to the standards of our other agreements.” So it looks like the strike will go ahead. The companies targeted include Activision, Electronic Arts, Take Two Interactive, WB Games, Disney and Insomniac Games, among others.

The issues concerning SAG-AFTRA include vocal stress, the absence of stunt coordinators from dangerous performances, and an alleged lack of transparency about what an actor may later be asked to do when first hired. In their strike bulletin, which you can read here, SAG-AFTRA gives a full statement of their concerns, arguing that videogame employers continue to work under terms “structured more than twenty years ago”. As the industry has matured since then, so have the standards of performances by videogame actors, and the demands placed upon them.

Law firm Barnes & Thornburg are representing the games industry in negotiations with SAG-AFTRA, and released a statement in response to the threatened strike, deeming it “precipitous, unnecessary and an action that will only harm their membership.” The lawyers argue that “SAG-AFTRA represents performers in less than 25% of the video games on the market” – SAG-AFTRA is an American union (its acronym refers to the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists, who merged) – and claim that developers will simply turn to actors based outside of the USA.

Thus, it’s unlikely that game development will be significantly disrupted by the strike. SAG-AFTRA claims “the support and cooperation of our sister unions all over the world for this effort, as demonstrated by a resolution adopted by the International Federation of Actors (FIA)”. However, the FIA is a federation of unions, with over 90 member organisations. It’s doubtful in the extreme that a simple statement of support from them will lead to an imitation of SAG-AFTRA’s strike by all of their members’ members, or Barnes & Thornburg would be more worried.