SAG-AFTRA’s Duncan Crabtree-Ireland Lauds Ratified Contract, Talks AI, Healthcare, Turnout & When He Starts Thinking About 2026 Deal – Q&A

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Hollywood’s long strike season is over and the town can finally get back to work without the specter of any more labor action, for now.

Actors were on strike for 118 days but after ratifying the deal between SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP, with a very healthy 78.33% of the votes, thesps, scribes, directors and crew (not to mention of all of the associated workers) can head into 2024 with a bit of optimism.

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, National Executive Director of SAG-AFTRA and Chief Negotiator, who alongside President Fran Drescher and the guild’s negotiating committee, spent many months to secure this deal, spoke to Deadline an hour after the ratification vote. He was evidently pleased with both the result and the turnout, higher than even he saw coming.

The deal, which is worth around $1B over three years, comes with the union’s first-ever protections around AI technology, albeit controversial ones, as well as gains around residuals, particularly the introduction of a streaming bonus, pension and healthcare.

Crabtree-Ireland admitted that some people would not be happy about the deal, particularly around AI, but said that SAG-AFTRA essentially got what it was asking for at the beginning of the process and called it a “very good start to establishing a sophisticated and enforceable set of protections for our members”.

He also addressed healthcare concerns, which came front and center earlier today after Animal Kingdom star Ellen Barkin tweeted that she’d been “thrown off” her SAG-AFTRA healthcare plan, saying that additional funding will give the healthcare trustees “financial flexibility” in future.

Finally, he also said that he was “already starting to think about” the 2026 negotiations. They’ll come around sooner than we think.  

DEADLINE: Congratulations on the ratification; how are you feeling?

DUNCAN CRABTREE-IRELAND: I am extremely pleased with the results and I’m also very, very happy that the turnout was really strong. That gives the result a lot of credibility because it shows the significant engagement on the part of all of our members in really evaluating this agreement and ultimately rendering their decision on it, which obviously was a very wide margin of yes votes. I’m really happy about it.

DEADLINE: 78.33% is a much higher number than many people were expecting, there seemed to be many people who were concerned about the number in the last few days.

CRABTREE-IRELAND: I am very, very pleased about it. I think the only time that you would expect to have numbers that are much higher than this is when you have basically an uncontested contract referendum where everyone [thinks] yes, this is great. That’s obviously not what we had in this case. There was a significant group of people who were speaking out primarily on AI, raising concerns about whether the contract terms were adequate or not, and I think we had a really robust debate and discussion with the members about that. That’s great. So obviously, the result of that discussion was ultimately a very large majority, saying that they think this contract merited ratification. I think that puts us in a good position to continue building upon the contract gains that are here

DEADLINE: Was it higher than you expected?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: It may have been higher than I expected. But I had hoped for a number in this ballpark, because I really felt, as I was out doing a lot of information meetings, not just the ones that were videoed, but also in various locales around the country, and I just saw a lot of member engagement and so my gut instinct had been that there was a wider range of support for this agreement than people might have intuited just by watching the info meetings that were recorded or by looking at social media. I think sometimes it’s easy for us to get into a space where whoever we’re hearing from on social media feels like it’s the world when there’s actually a whole world out there. So, I had hoped for a result in this ballpark and obviously, I’m happy with the results.

DEADLINE: Similarly, the turnout was higher than for the last few deals, how did that make you feel?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: When you break it down into actual numbers, that’s more than 55,000 members who cast a ballot in this particular vote. That’s a lot. I think that is certainly enough to feel like the result is a very representative sample of our members at large. I know there will be members who are disappointed by the result, who feel like they wish that the contract wouldn’t have been ratified. But we’re here to represent everybody. So that’s part of the democratic process, it’s totally fine. From this we go forward, the contract is ratified, it does take effect and we start getting ready for the preparations that we’ll need to do for a next round of bargaining in two and a half years, which seems like a long way away, but will be here [soon].

DEADLINE: Have you ever wondered why the other 62% aren’t voting?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: It’s a good question. When we had the strike authorization vote that only got in the 40% range and that was unprecedented for us. People have busy lives. I think the fact is, because the industry is getting back to work, there are people who, just for whatever reason, didn’t have a chance to vote. There are probably some people who are just not that active, kind of just like in politics, in general or when vote opportunities happen, but we do have a long history of turnout results, and this is definitely at the very highest end of that. That makes me feel like there is a high level of engagement from the membership. Certainly if we look at the strike itself, there was next to zero violation of strike orders, there was huge turnout on the picket lines. I don’t think anyone could look at the totality of the negotiation and not conclude that SAG-AFTRA members on the whole are very engaged with their union, they are informed about the issues and that’s why we achieve this great success.

While there are members who are disappointed about the AI provisions or whatever else when you take a look at this contract, in overall terms, it’s really extraordinary. This is the first industry contract, as far as we can tell ever, that has exceeded a billion dollars in contract gains during one term of the contract. This is the first time ever than anyone had the kind of detailed AI regulations that we’ve put into this agreement. It’s the first time ever that that self-tapes, and that casting process has been regulated with very specific limitation, the streaming bonus fund is the first time ever that that type of fund has been created in this part of the industry. There’s so many things in this deal that are groundbreaking and to have them all occur at once, in one contract term is extraordinary. I think that’s been overshadowed by the anxiety over AI. But those are things that are bread and butter issues that members are going to start feeling.

DEADLINE: What do you say to those members who still have concerns over AI and say that there are no meaningful protections?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: I recognize there are people who just want AI to be banned, they don’t want it to exist, they wish it never been invented. But that’s not realistic. That’s not something we can accomplish. When you look at what we actually set out at the beginning of this negotiation, we set out to achieve informed consent and fair compensation. I must have said it 1000 times on picket lines and everywhere else. And by the way, when I was saying that all those times no one was saying no, that’s not right, everyone was saying yes, that’s what we should be getting. We accomplished those things. This contract has informed consent. It has fair compensation. It has a structure to build on generative AI. I do understand and respect the point of view of people who feel like there is a real threat that this contract isn’t sufficient to address. I do believe that during the term of this contract, over the next two and a half years, the protections that we have in this agreement will be sufficient to address those concerns. I also note that this is not the only way we’re trying to address AI. It is a huge important part of it. But just last week I was a participant in a Senate Forum on AI that was organized by Majority Leader Schumer, a bipartisan group of senators, who’ve had a series of these forums and I was there for this last week talking about AI and the creative industries and copyright. The fact is that you’re going to need Legislative and Public Policy action as a complement to collective bargaining and member education. There’s a several puzzle pieces that are part of providing this protection, it’s not all on the shoulders of this one contract. When people have a chance to reflect on that more as we see this contract go into effect during the next month, I think that that people will recognize that we have an opportunity to continue building on these protections and that this is a very good start to establishing a sophisticated and enforceable set of protections for our members.

DEADLINE: Do you think the issue of AI has clouded the positive economics of the deal? Earlier today, Ellen Barkin tweeted that she’d been thrown off her healthcare plan, and that seems like the kind of issue that members are concerned about on a day-to-day basis?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: First of all, let’s just note that the issues relating to performers who are Medicare eligible and taking a pension, not having their residuals count towards eligibility credit is not something that’s really addressed directly in this contract because that is a decision that’s ultimately made by the trustees of the health plan and the decision in question was made in 2020, as part of an efforts to address funding deficits in the health plan. Having said that the thing that we’d have done in this contract to try and help with that is we made it a priority to negotiate significant increases in healthcare contributions. In this contract term, there is going to be more than $300 million in additional funding to our benefit plan, a chunk of which goes to the health plan. That’s going to potentially provide the kind of financial flexibility for the trustees that can let them take a look at things like the question of eligibility triggered by residuals for Medicare eligible performers, who are taking their pensions.

It’s something that we all care about and are very concerned about and this negotiation has helped us have the financial resources in the health plan so that we can try to find a way to address that.

DEADLINE: When do you start thinking about the 2026 contract?

CRABTREE-IRELAND: I think we’re already starting to think about it. Obviously, we want to see the implementation of this agreement first because we’re going to learn things from implementation of this agreement on what the industry does over the next period of time. I know we have a specific right under this agreement to meet with the companies every six months to find out what they’re doing in AI, especially generative AI, and that’s going to be a source of information to help us strategize our proposals in the next round of bargaining. But just to also note, we still have a contract to negotiate with the video game companies. We’re in the midst of that bargaining. We’re on the cusp the potential strike in that area and AI is one of the issues, one of the key issues in that negotiation. This is a topic that is going to be relevant in all of our contract negotiations not only TV/theatrical, and so it’s not a topic that I’ll be stopping thinking about or talking about anytime in the near future.

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