“That was the turning point for a lot of actors," said actor Susan Sarandon to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka about the national commercial actors strike 12 years ago. "It wasn’t until we felt threatened that we realized the importance of our union.”
In a casual moment in a midtown Manhattan hotel Friday evening, Sarandon, a longtime member of SAG-AFTRA, and Trumka spoke at length before she introduced him to a gathering held by Local 1 of the American Federation of School Administrators.
The conversation ranged from Trumka’s background as a coal miner from a family of Pennsylvania coal miners to Sarandon’s own longtime support of working people.
“I’ve always known that unions made America,” she said, adding that it’s one thing to know it on an intellectual level but another to get it in your gut.
The catalyst for Sarandon, she said, came during the strike in 2000 of 135,000 commercial actors and members of the Screen Actors and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists.
And it came both as a realization that she and her union members could hold together and win—but also because other union members from every occupation came to the commercial actors aid in solidarity.
"That was amazing. To have hotel workers bringing us coffee and donuts. To know other pilots and teachers and miners would stand together with us—that showed me the meaning of solidarity," she said.
The members of the two unions—which recently merged—successfully pushed back against efforts to do away with residual earnings for network television.
That experience helped motivate Sarandon to drop everything to go to Wisconsin in 2011, when Gov. Scott Walker took away the rights of public workers to bargain collectively.
“It was so cold!” she said. “And it was so moving. I saw the farmers coming into Madison on their tractors and the firefighters and teachers. It truly cut across all lines.”
In response to questions, Trumka told Sarandon about the organizing work of nontraditional workers like carwash workers in Los Angeles and taxi workers in New York City, whom Trumka met with the day before. And he told her about workers at a company called Atlas Media, just a few blocks from where the two sat, who voted to join the Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE), about 18 months ago and are still trying to reach a contract. Trumka explained that he had rallied with those TV writers and producers outside the company’s offices earlier on Friday.
Sarandon cheered for the organizing efforts, and about the TV writers and producers she said, “Oh good! That’s going to be a shock to the owners!”