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‘An exciting time for labor.’ Outgoing head of SAG-AFTRA shares thoughts on the union’s future and challenges

Gabrielle Carteris in a white suit in front of photographers.
Exiting SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris discusses her outlook for the industry as she looks to hand over power
(Valerie Macon / AFP / Getty Images)

This past year, Gabrielle Carteris has been atop Hollywood’s biggest union as the COVID-19 pandemic caused thousands in the industry to lose work and layoffs in the union itself.

After five years in leadership, the former “Beverly Hills 90210" star is handing over the baton to a new president.

Carteris was appointed in 2016 after the death of Ken Howard. She won election in 2017 and again in 2019. Last week, Carteris told members that she would not seek a third term and threw her backing behind actor Fran Drescher, who will run on the Unite for Strength slate.

The union’s 160,000 performers, actors and broadcast journalists are set to elect a new president this fall.

As she prepares to step down, Carteris, who will remain on the board of SAG-AFTRA if she gets enough votes in September, spoke with The Times about her past and future.

Below are excerpts from the interview, which has been edited for clarity and space.

What would you say are your main accomplishments as president?

It’s been a really interesting time for me to be able to reflect back on. One of the greatest accomplishments was being a part of the merger [of SAG and AFTRA]. It’s actually allowed us to come to this point right now.

When I first came into my presidency, I had a few things I was committed to really doing in my time in leadership. One was a strong contracts, residuals, protections, diversity, equity and inclusion. I feel that that has really been accomplished with the work of the members.

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For instance, our negotiations with Netflix, organizing new broadcast stations, new jobs for members, the increase we’ve seen in streaming [residuals], which was so important because our members have recognized that streaming is really the way of our industry.

I’m also proud of the protections we’ve been able to develop in terms of sexual harassment prevention, reporting and trauma support post-Weinstein that we were able to help move into a movement by creating protocols and guidelines, by being able to have the call-in center to report, to be able to create contract language that gave power to the individual to feel protected on set. And the laws we’ve been able to put forward to help in the hiring process for members, which is outside our contract.

Diversity, equity and inclusion were a very big focus for me. Those are things I’ve worked on tirelessly, and the union will continue on that path. I think the foundation is strong. The members have a strong vision. And I’ll say that working with Fran and Anthony [Rapp, who is running for secretary-treasurer of the union], they are going to be the greatest stabilizers as we move forward.

What advice would you give to your successor, and what challenges are ahead for them, including unifying a guild that has a history of infighting?

In leadership, it’s always about the work. It’s really not about the politics. So though there might be politics, and it might ebb and flow, the work always is constant. I would say to everybody, “Keep moving forward. Take care of the members.” That’s our job, and that is my advice: to keep on a steady course of serving members and their needs and fighting the good fight.

It’s an evolving industry, and we have to continue being in front of that eight ball, paying attention. Technology is a very large part of our industry, now more than ever. We’ll continue building the technology infrastructure like our mobile apps, online dues payment, claims tracking and our residuals’ direct deposit and producer portal. That will ensure a better future for the membership.

Do you see the relationships and negotiations with studios and streaming companies getting tougher?

Every negotiation has its own challenge. Being creative in negotiations is very important. We also don’t only use negotiations; we work on legislation. In terms of attacking certain issues, I think we’re going to continue our historic collaboration with fellow industry unions and allies as we move forward. This industry is changing for everybody, including our employers. There will be times when it’s very challenging and times where we’ll really pull together to tackle those challenges together.

Unions are now more relevant than ever. This past year, workers stepped forward saying, “I cannot, nor do I want to, do it alone. I need the collective voice.” And even in this pandemic, we have organized more work as a result of workers coming together than any other time. I think this is really an exciting time for labor. Young people really see the relevance of the collective voice, and that bodes well for unions.

What is on the minds of your members as they get back to work?

I think [it’s], “Is the pandemic really over?” There was a lot of innovation and things that occurred during this pandemic for people to be able to continue auditioning. There was more self-taping than ever before. There’s a lot of different ways we’ve been entering back into work. And I think the big thing on members’ minds is, “What is going to remain and what will go back to what it was?” We know that we’re streaming now more than ever. So on our members’ minds is going to be, “How do we approach that in the next negotiation?” Those are conversations we’re already starting to have.

What shape is the membership in as production opens back up?

It’s been a really challenging time, I know, for the entire world, not only our country and not only our members. Our industry was the first to shut down in the pandemic and one of the last to start again. We know how much loss there’s been. I know it’s been a very, very challenging year for some people, life changing, not just monetarily, but you know, I’ve lost family members. A lot of us have lost dear friends.

The members really have suffered. But I do think they’re feeling hopeful now. I’m getting more comments from people saying they’re going out again. They’re so happy about the protocols. I just finished shooting a film three months ago, and when I was on set, it was so amazing how safe I felt because of the protocols. I felt safer there than I do in the grocery store. And that’s what I’m hearing from members.

What is in your future?

I’m here to stay fighting for the members, so I’ll be on the board. I’m the president of the International Federation of Actors. I’m here to protect our members and performers all over the world. Our industry is global, and it’s very important. I also look forward to my acting, so I’m going to hopefully be developing some (acting) projects. It’s a whole new world out there.


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