SAG-AFTRA — a union representing screen actors, voice actors, and other media performers in the United States — has worked with videogame publishers for more than a year to negotiate better terms for its members. It now appears those negotiations have fallen through, as the union announced this week it would launch a labor strike tomorrow, October 21st.
Many notable videogame voice actors are SAG members, including Jennifer Hale (Commander Shepard), David Hayter (Solid Snake), Crispin Freeman (Winston from Overwatch), and cult celebrity Wil Wheaton. Several, including Steve Blum (Wolverine) and Mary Elizabeth McGlynn (Lady Sif) appeared in a video this past May to raise awareness among fans.
Central to SAG-AFTRA voice actors’ complaints are hazardous working conditions. Union members say videogame studios enforce long, vocally strenuous recording sessions which may have a marked, deleterious effect on the actors’ health.
“Actors are reporting that they are fainting in sessions, tasting blood, vomiting, losing their voice for a day up to several weeks, [and] permanently losing their vocal range,” says the SAG-AFTRA informational subsite concerning the strike. In a May letter to workplace safety regulatory board OSHA, union executive director David White cited the findings of three separate medical professionals that vocal stress from these sessions are “causing medical problems that include vocal nodules, cysts, polyps and, in some cases, cord hemorrhaging.” So, this clearly isn’t a matter of a mere sore throat.
Some have also cited risky and unsupervised performance capture sessions, like prop swords swung at actors’ heads. “Many actors feel unsafe without a stunt coordinator because they are often asked to do things that could potentially be dangerous to themselves or others,” says the strike website. “For example, once, without a stunt coordinator on set, a videogame developer tried to do a wire pull — which means he basically made himself jerk really hard and fast across a room — without someone on set to monitor his safety. He, of course, got hurt and couldn’t go back to work for a long while. This is just one instance among many.”
In negotiating for better terms, the game companies involved in the labor dispute — including Activision, Electronic Arts, and Take Two, and Warner Bros., among others — have reportedly tried to introduce several punitive measures to counter union demands, including a $2,500 “fine” for lateness and the ability to confiscate an “inattentive” actor’s phone during hours-long sessions. Film trade publication Deadline states these among other proposals were successfully struck from the bargaining table, but that’s not the limit to union members’ concerns.
Another major bone of contention is inadequate pay, specifically in the form of residuals — small accrued royalty payments from after a game is completed and in the market. While film, radio, and television actors all enjoy residuals whenever their work is screened or rerun, videogame voice actors get no such royalties, even in the cases of huge blockbuster games like Grand Theft Auto.
“This is the only billion-dollar industry where actors are paid no residuals,” says one actor, quoted in Deadline. “Everyone I talk to at auditions is all in favor of a strike. We’ve all had enough.”
Some individual developers, such as programmers and animators, have come forward to say they also do not receive residuals for their contributions to released games, so why should voice actors? However, this is a rhetorical non-starter, at the very least.
“Videogame companies say this is an issue of principle, and don’t want to open a door to new forms of compensation. But they already make these in the form of stock options and bonuses to executives and programmers,” a SAG-AFTRA representative tells Zam. “We are asking for a secondary payment only if games reach a threshold of sales.”
The game companies involved believe that a strike is “unnecessary and an action that will only harm their membership,” resulting only in more roles for non-union voice actors, who already make up the majority of the videogame industry’s talent. In a subsequent statement released earlier today, the companies add that it had offered union negotiators a 9% pay increase and up to $950 in additional compensation per game “to demonstrate our willingness to reach a fair, mutually-beneficial agreement” and prevent a strike.
Union representatives are not impressed. “Fair compensation includes secondary payments when games hit a certain level of success with consumers, not simply higher upfront wages,” SAG-AFTRA says in a statement released this afternoon. “No matter what these companies are peddling in their press releases, this negotiation is not only about upfront compensation. It is about fairness and the ability of middle-class performers to survive in this industry.”
SAG-AFTRA is also calling on voice actors outside its union to “understand the importance of the issues and honor the strike,” asking them not to cross picket lines.
The videogame companies, through their collective representative, have sought to reassure customers (and one assumes, shareholders) that the strike will not affect the oncoming slate of holiday releases, for which voice work has already been completed. The long-term effects of a strike, however, will depend on when and how the dispute is resolved.
Barring some 11th hour intervention, the voice actor’s strike will go forward as scheduled starting tomorrow, October 21st.
UPDATED (5:53pm): A SAG-AFTRA representative has confirmed that it is asking non-union voice actors to strike in solidarity with members.
(h/t Polygon, Deadline, and the union and industry representatives who responded to queries regarding this story.)