What the SAG-AFTRA strike means for Minnesota

a sign that reads sag aftra on strike
Striking screenwriters and actors hold signs at a rally in Chicago on July 20, as the labor dispute that has halted Hollywood spreads to more cities.
Teresa Crawford | AP

There’s a good chance you’ve got a SAG-AFTRA member living in your apartment building, down your street or in your community. And as the national actors’ strike enters its third week, Minnesota members are asking for support and solidarity.

Casey Lewis, president-elect of the Twin Cities local SAG-AFTRA board, was a guest on Morning Edition.

“We are your neighbors. We're not Tom Hanks, we're not Tom Cruise,” he said. “What we're looking for is fair wages and working conditions, so we can help create stories in Minnesota, about Minnesotans — and using Minnesotans for the American culture that is film and television, creative culture that is film and television, that quite frankly, during the pandemic, we all realized how much was important to us.”

SAG-AFTRA union represents performers across the country — not just in Hollywood. They’re striking the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers and hoping to negotiate new agreements that include better pay, residuals, pension and health care contributions, and limits on the use of artificial intelligence. Last week, the AMPTP said it’s offering a more than $1 billion boost in those areas over a three-year period.

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Lewis says SAG-AFTRA is in solidarity with the Writers Guild of America, whose members have been on strike since May 2. The two unions are in agreement about the dangers of AI in and beyond the entertainment industry.

“It said that AI will affect truck drivers to lawyers, and currently the actors and the writers are at the forefront of making a determination as to whether we’re going to use this in a responsible, effective manner, or are we gonna let it steamroll workers across America and, quite frankly, around the world,” Lewis said.

This past legislative session, state lawmakers quintupled funding for a film tax credit to nearly $25 million. This affects movies or episodic content made in Minnesota that will spend at least $1 million over a one-year period. Filmmakers can then get a 25% tax credit for production costs. There’s also an eight-year sunset period, which means series-makers can plan out content over several years. Lewis says this is deeply entwined with the actors’ strike as that credit is now competitive.

portrait of a man with glasses
Actor Casey E. Lewis, member of SAG-AFTRA and AEA.
Courtesy photo

“It's been 20 years since a sizable production has been in Minnesota,” Lewis said. “So now, larger budgeted projects and episodic programming will consider coming to Minnesota… that's the work that's being struck: Film, streaming and TV.”

However, SAG-AFTRA was strategic and created a pathway for indie and small productions to apply for an interim agreement with the union, allowing production work not affiliated with AMTPT to continue. According to Deadline Hollywood, that list is continuing to expand.

Productions in Minnesota have a significant impact on local economies. A report from the University of Minnesota Duluth Labovitz School of Business and Economics shows that TV and film productions created more than 100 jobs and injected $3.2 million into St. Louis County last year. That resulted in an output of nearly $7 million.

“We want the industry to come back to Minnesota,” Lewis said, getting emotional. “And we could create the new stories that Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon have created for so many Minnesotans. So, looking back on the old days in Minnesota, we're interested in creating the new old days.”

There’s a solidarity rally at noon Friday at the AFL-CIO headquarters in St. Paul. Lewis says members of both unions, as well as the WGA, will be there in support.

Editor’s note: Some broadcast employees at Minnesota Public Radio are members of SAG-AFTRA, but are under a different contract and not on strike.