Strike Looms Between SAG-AFTRA and Video Game Companies

October 20, 2016

SAG-AFTRA rejected a contract offer from several video game companies on Wednesday, thus paving the way for voice and motion-capture actors to strike starting October 21 unless demands are met. According to the union, “This group of video game employers knowingly feeds off other industries that pay these same performers fairly to make a living. This represents a ‘freeloader model of compensation’ that we believe cannot and should not continue.”

Besides having actors only receive higher upfront wages, the union is fighting for secondary payments when games reach a high level of consumer success, stating, “Secondary compensation is what allows professional performers to feed their families in between jobs.” Currently, voice actors don’t receive residuals on their work unlike television actors receive.

The union is also seeking safe working environments for both voice and motion-capture actors. It argues that video game employers often fail to hire required stunt coordinators on set, “which puts performance capture and stunt performers at safety risks.” Likewise, voice actors are said to be at risk with the “challenging vocal tasks” that games frequently demand. Thus, the union is fighting to limit vocal sessions to two hours, down from the current four hours, without loss of pay. SAG-AFTRA president, Gabrielle Carteris, called on games publishers to “negotiate a modern contract that covers this highly profitable industry.”

The game makers that would be targeted by the strike include Activision Publishing; Blindlight; Corps of Discovery Films; Disney Character Voices; Electronic Arts Productions; Formosa Interactive; Insomniac Games; Interactive Associates; Take 2 Interactive Software; VoiceWorks Productions; and WB Games.

SAG-AFTRA’s board of directors voted unanimously Sunday to strike the video game companies if a deal cannot be reached by Friday, October 21 at midnight PT.

On the other hand, the video game producers have slammed SAG-AFTRA over the threat to strike, saying, “We have negotiated in good faith for the past 18 months with SAG-AFTRA union leaders, and are making progress toward a new contract….We consider the Union’s threatened labor action to call a strike precipitous, unnecessary, and an action that will only harm their membership. SAG-AFTRA represents performers in less than 25 percent of the video games on the market.”

The video companies have only one report of workplace injury as a result of vocal stress. And they have sought to reduce the burdens placed on talent by providing more flexible work scheduling as well as other innovative work arrangements. Also, they insist, “We want to draw attention to the increased economic benefits and working condition improvements being offered because SAG-AFTRA’s website is inaccurate and out of date and does not reflect offers some of which have been on the table for more than a year.”

The gaming companies have refused to include residuals as part of any compensation package, arguing that doing so would upend the industry’s business model. Instead, they offered “additional compensation” on top of an actor’s regular pay and depending how many sessions were worked on each game, and maxing out at $950 after eight sessions.

The union countered with an almost identical arrangement, but instead of using the companies’ wording of “additional compensation,” they called it “residuals buyout,” attempting to gain residuals for voice actors for the first time.

Rejecting this terminology, the companies argued it would be unfair to offer a buyout of something that isn’t offered to the hundreds of animators and programmers who likewise work hard to develop the assorted popular games.

“It would be unfortunate for SAG-AFTRA to take its members out on strike over terminology and not money,” stated Scott Witlin who is the chief negotiator of the companies. Witlin continued saying, “We urged union leaders to put the package to a vote of their membership, but union leaders refused.”

The dispute continued despite a federal mediator being brought into talks on Wednesday. The sticking point was said to be the residuals.

Because SAG-AFTRA represents performers in less than 25-percent of the video games on the market, the impending strike could hurt those SAG-AFTRA talents, and as a result, provide competing actors an advantage.