My friend "Mike" is one of them scabs.
He and the rowdy crowd that formed outside the Aronoff Center for the Arts last week are the only reasons I know there is an actors' strike against advertisers going on now. Seems the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (AFTRA) are negotiating a new contract with advertisers, and they want a piece of the Internet pie. Mind you, Internet advertising isn't all that profitable right now, at least for actors. The actors' unions just want to be prepared for the future.
Mike wants these things too. Problem is, the unions don't want Mike. They didn't before the strike. And they certainly don't want him after the strike, whenever it ends. He did the unthinkable: He crossed the picket lines.
"It feels good to be acting," Mike tells me. "It doesn't feel good to be called a scab." You've seen Mike in a couple of national spots for soups and headache medicine. You've heard him in a dozen national and regional spots for fast-food joints and beer companies. If the unions have their way, you'll never see Mike again. He'll be blacklisted.
A struggling, hungry actor with bills to pay, Mike doesn't want to jeopardize his future. But he has to make ends meet. Before you make up your mind about what you think of the striking actors or targeted companies like Procter & Gamble, consider Mike's case.
Mike and I graduated from college together. I was able to find meaningful employment in my field fairly easily. Mike, being an actor, found odd jobs here and there. He moved to New York, where there are a good number of odd jobs and a handful of opportunities to break into the business. He learned quickly that SAG wasn't exactly welcoming.
"If you want to join the union, you have to work on a union spot," he says. "If you want to be in a union spot, you have to audition for the spot. But you can only audition for the spot if you're in the union."
AFTRA is a bit easier to join. All you need is about $1,000. Mike didn't have it, but he could work toward it. Then he hit a roadblock in the form of a tumor the size of a grapefruit on his spine. Three surgeries later, he's nowhere near the $1,000. Worse, he has hefty health insurance fees to pay.
Mike thought his luck had changed when he was cast in a radio spot. Then he found out about the strike. He quickly called SAG. They told him not to do the commercial. "Does that mean you'll let me in the union?" Mike asked. They said, "No."
His options were clear: Go back to temping, wait for the unions to sort out the mess and go into ridiculous debt paying hospital bills, or do the commercial.
"It was a short-term fix," he says. "I knew that. In the long-term, it's going to affect my career. But the health insurance made the decision for me."
In the eyes of the unions, breaking the strike either once or 20 times is unforgivable. So Mike has consistently worked since that first break. He says there are days he regrets the decision. He's torn between being proud of his work and feeling ashamed for getting it the way he did. But then, he reasons, why should he support a group of actors who don't even want him to play their reindeer games?
Before I talked to Mike, I had no opinion about the strike. It didn't affect me. Ads still were playing every few minutes during The West Wing. I certainly didn't notice a lapse in the quality of acting in commercials, much to the unions' chagrin. The strike was a big, impersonal issue that put Tim Robbins and Elizabeth Hurley in the business page headlines.
Now it's personal. There are lives at stake. And I'm sure for every Mike, there's a SAG actor who also has health insurance payments due who isn't crossing the picket lines. The difference is, that guy has a union protecting him.
Who's looking out for Mike?
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