20 Years Later, Actors Wrestle With Legacy of Divisive Six-Month Commercials Strike

Dave McNary
·13-min read

There are two big factions among the 160,000 members of SAG-AFTRA, and they have rarely, if ever, gotten along, even in the eight years since SAG and AFTRA merged into a single union. No event exemplifies the deep divide within SAG-AFTRA like the 2000 commercials strike, which lasted six months and ended 20 years ago this week.

William Daniels, the Emmy-winning actor known for “St. Elsewhere” and “Boy Meets World,” was the face of the strike as SAG president at the time. He was so bitter at enemies that emerged during the work stoppage that when his term ended in 2001 he vowed to never set foot again in SAG’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters.

But in an interview last month with Variety, Daniels said he would do it all again if he could go back in time.

“Nobody cared about commercial actors and people who were not commercial actors did not have an understanding of their issues,” he said. “I would do it again. It was worthwhile. I was very glad when it was finished. And I made some great friends.”

Sara Kreiger, who served as a strike captain in New York, still has nothing good to say about the experience. She asserts that her career came to a virtual standstill and maintains that the unions wound up inadvertently encouraging advertisers to shoot commercials non-union.

“I took all of my energy and put it into showing up at strike headquarters every day, five to six days a week,” she said. “The greatest take-away from the strike was not the gains that we made, but the losses that were created. Nonunion people crossed the picket line, as advertisers learned how to get their jobs done without professional union talent.”

The debate among performers and union activists still rages as to whether the contractual gains offset the long-term losses. The nitty-gritty of the issue turned on effort to change the long-standing protocol for paying actors who appear in TV commercials. But the bitterness of the battle was fueled by conflicting approaches with SAG and AFTRA to dealing with employers and the willingness to use a labor organization’s ultimate weapon — a work stoppage.

The strike began on a May 1, 2000, with a rousing rally by thousands of members at the La Brea Tar Pits with Tom Hanks as the keynote speaker, followed by a march down several miles of Wilshire Boulevard. From there, it was day after day of hundreds of demonstrations and pickets.

“For me, the strike was an endless picket every single day,” recalled actor Cynthia Steele. “You’d be asking, ‘Are you going to Nestle or AT&T and I’ll go if you go.’ It was my contract so I felt like a mama bear about it.”

The work stoppage revolved around the ad industry’s demand to replace what is known as Class A, or a “pay-per-play” system of compensation for broadcast TV blurbs with the proposal that advertisers pay actors a lump sum on a quarterly basis, eliminating per-play fees for actors. SAG and AFTRA negotiated the contract jointly even though the unions were separate entities at the time. Both unions were opposed to the ad industry’s proposal and in fact pushed for implementing the Class A pay-per-play system for commercials shown on cable, where quarterly buyouts were the norm.

The SAG and AFTRA boards voted 150-0 to go on strike. In the heat of battle, the unions called out strikebreakers like Elizabeth Hurley and Tiger Woods and brought in high-profile backing from such marquee names as Harrison Ford, Nicolas Cage, Paul Newman, Susan Sarandon and Julia Roberts. The union also initiated a boycott of three key brands tied to Procter & Gamble brands: Ivory Soap, Tide and Crest.

The final deal was announced on Oct. 23, 2000, a few weeks after the boycott started. It preserved Class A for broadcast TV, boosted cable pay by 140% and gave the union an important jurisdictional victory over actors in internet ads.

But the length of the strike widened longstanding political divisions. Daniels was attacked as incompetent and the gains were characterized as illusory. Daniels chose not to seek re-election in 2001. Melissa Gilbert was elected president of SAG later that year by running on a “Restore Respect” platform against Valerie Harper.

“It was important for our political enemies to paint the strike as a failure,” Daniels wrote in his 2017 autobiography. “If they gave us any credit, how could they possibly win the next election? By continually declaring that the commercial strike was a failure (and convincing the membership of this false premise), they have virtually ensured that the membership will never again approve a strike and without the ability to strike, our union — any union — has no power whatsoever. They have effectively undermined every negotiation since then.”

But many SAG members, such as Becca Lish, insist to this day that the strike should have been avoided.

“Calling for a work stoppage should only be a last resort,” Lish said. “Although the power to strike is an important tool to have in reserve, using it can cause serious harm and the risks must be weighed with care as there is no certainty of gain. For example, the commercials strike in 2000 resulted in devastating personal losses for performers in our community, some of whom lost their homes, or drained savings meant for their children’s education or their own retirement.”

The 2000 strike has remained the dominant argument at the performers union for the past two decades — particularly among members outside Los Angeles, who have insisted that the work stoppage was a flop. The failure narrative gained power within the union as the moderate side gained clout via Unite For Strength and United Screen Actors Nationwide. SAG and AFTRA voted to merge in 2012, creating a mega-union of performers that was billed as having greater clout at the bargaining table.

But SAG-AFTRA doesn’t use that clout, according to Gordon Drake, a strike captain and negotiating committee member.

“I don’t recognize my union any more,” he said. “The 2000 strike was successful because of the high level of member education that took place. The merger was all about suppressing the voice of the members, so union leadership never mobilizes members during negotiations.”

The origins of the strike date back to the mid-1990s as actors specializing in commercials found that cable networks could run a single ad heavily and pay only $11.32 a day. During the 1997 negotiations for the commercials contract, ad industry negotiators signaled that they wanted to revamp the compensation formula. Actors who specialized in commercials such as Steele, Steve Barr, Gary Epp, Todd Amorde, Ruth Peebles and Cyd Strittmatter began to organize into a SAG faction dubbed as the Performers Alliance. They made a point of buttonholing other actors at auditions.

“We always thought the strongest group in the union were the working actors,” Amorde recalls. “Our slogan was ‘Working performers for a union that works.’ And we were getting screwed on the commercials contract.”

Daniels was recruited to run for the SAG president’s post in mid-1999. On paper he was a shoo-in, an accomplished and respected actor who won two Emmys for his work on the NBC drama “St. Elsewhere” and was at the end of his seven-season run on the ABC comedy “Boy Meets World.” His candidacy was galvanized in part by a group of commercial actors — Chuck Sloan, Bob Carlson, David Jolliffe and Paul Napier — who were deeply worried about the ad industry’s proposal. They wanted a hard-nosed contender to challenge Richard Masur as the leader of SAG.

In a meeting at Art’s Deli in Studio City, Daniels offered to run even though his wife, actor Bonnie Bartlett, had said earlier that he would not: “How about me? I don’t know if I’d be able to win.”

“You’d win in a second,” Sloan replied.

Sloan was right. Masur was seeking a third term and was well known — he memorably played Princeton recruiter Fred Rutherford in Tom Cruise’s “Risky Business.” — but Daniels had a bigger profile and resume. In his new role as SAG president, Daniels was widely quoted as saying, “I’m not afraid of anyone in Hollywood.”

Two decades later, New York actor Paul Christie asserts that Daniels and his Performance Alliance allies were strategically inept. “It was a huge mistake by the Los Angeles people trying to prove how tough they were. The rhetoric out of Los Angeles was not helpful because both sides got dug in,” Christie said.

At that point, Christie was a well-known commercials actor as a Chrysler spokesman and as the aggrieved Louie the Lizard in the Budweiser frog ads. He was also active in SAG politics as the VP of the New York local from 1999 to 2003.

“By definition, a strike is a failure,” he says. “It was devastating for us. People lost their homes.”

At the time, Christie’s misgivings did not preclude him from running an active campaign against the ad industry.

“The strike was like guerrilla warfare,” he recalled. “We’d go to City Hall since the film permits were filed there, then we’d have to clear our actions with the NYPD. We’d try to disrupt the shoot with pots and pans and chainsaws. You’d get two minutes on Eyewitness News. So it felt like we were constantly swimming upstream because the ad industry was still getting the work done.”

In Los Angeles, the strike committee took over the James Cagney Room on the first floor of SAG’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters. Members began posting hundreds of photos of strikebreakers on a “Scab Wall,” and they learned on the fly how to hold demonstrations and disrupt commercial shoots. Julie Sanford, who had recently started making a living in commercials when the strike started, recalls becoming a strike captain and going “all in.”

“I remember using compact mirrors to disrupt shoots, whistles and pots and pans,” she said. “And I remember the first time I told a police officer, who had told me to leave and I said, ‘No, I have a right to be here on the sidewalk.’ We were picketing a casting office that was shooting non-union at Olympic and Bundy. He backed off because he knew I was right.”

Sanford says she was blacklisted for years. “It took a while for me to get work again. I had been quite visible. I might have not done as much during the strike had I known,” she said.

Peaches Johnson, who had been in national ads for Gap and Geico, began holding a daily demonstration at the corner of Crescent Heights and Sunset Boulevard, which soon became known as “Peaches’ Corner.”

“I know my shortcomings but I’m good at simplifying,” she said. “I learned how to do soundbites — boom, boom, boom — when reporters showed up. By the time we picketed Elizabeth Scabley (Hurley) at the premiere for ‘Bedazzled,’ we really knew how to run a demonstration.”

So why did the strike last so long? Ad industry negotiator Ira Shepard told Variety he remains surprised two decades later at the outcome. Shepard said SAG would not compromise on pay-per-play for networks. He also blames what he sees as the intransigence of Daniels and his supporters.

“We wanted to modernize the contract but it went back to a basic format,” Shepard notes. “But it’s hard to says that it could have been done quicker. It’s easier to go on strike if you’re not working every day. You had a minority that was promising pie in the sky. Pay-per-play was a lottery situation so our proposal was for a minimum level, giving the industry a cost guarantee with higher minimums. I explained it until I was blue in the face.”

Doug Ely, a partner at the Los Angeles-based AKA Agency, went on hundreds of pickets in support of his clients but admits the strike essentially helped advertisers learn how to do nonunion work.

“It was very shortsighted of SAG and AFTRA not to have more input from agents,” Ely said. “Once it ended, there was tremendous resentment among advertisers. Everyone walked away unhappy. It really took off in the nonunion world and it became out of control. They resented having to pay. And commercial actors were always looked down upon.”

On the SAG-AFTRA website, the 2020 strike is covered in two sentences: “May 1: SAG & AFTRA joint Commercials Strike begins, and will officially end October 30th. It is the Guild’s 8th strike and AFTRA’s 4th national strike.”

Anne-Marie Johnson, who lost her 2009 bid for the SAG presidency to Ken Howard as the head of the Membership First ticket, said the current leadership rules by instilling fear into the members. Johnson said it’s wrong for the union to minimize the impact and effectiveness of strikes.

“The biggest weakness of SAG-AFTRA is that unionism is never explained to the members,” she said. “The leadership and staff has always done a horrible job of explaining what it means to be in a union.”

Peter Nguyen, a SAG staff organizer during the strike and an 18-year labor negotiations veteran, is just as blunt.

“The reason for the opposition to the 2000 strike was that a lot of staff and New York actors were not comfortable with a member-driven union,” he notes. “The ad industry wanted to get rid of Class A and that triggered a revolt at SAG. A lot of working actors said privately that if they took Class A away, they’d come after residuals on the film and TV contract. What won the strike was Ivory, Crest and Tide. We needed to figure out who the real power was and it turned out to be Proctor & Gamble.”

Many of those involved in the strike left the union long ago. Epp withdrew after he revealed in 2006 that SAG’s commercial earnings rose 41% between 2000 and 2005 to $750 million, asserting guild staff and leaders refused to divulge the numbers because they want to continue portraying the strike as a failure. For his trouble, Epp was kicked off the 2006 negotiating committee.

Since then, SAG-AFTRA has never revealed its annual commercial earnings figures. In its 2019 announcement about the national board approving a successor deal on its commercials contact, it gave only one specific dollar figure: increased funding to the health and retirement/pension plans estimated at $22.2 million.

For all the drama that ensued during the battle of SAG vs. Madison Avenue, Epp is still in agreement with Daniels’ view of the decision to flex union muscle.

“If you say the strike was a failure, it shows that you can’t do simple math,” Epp said.

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