By John Nichols / The Nation
The decision by actors to join writers in striking against the motion picture industry has created a “Which Side Are You On?” moment for many of the world’s most prominent film stars. And the woman who may turn out to be the biggest star of the season has a one-word answer to the question.
Australian actress Margot Robbie—who plays the title role in Barbie, the summer blockbuster that opens in the United States this weekend—was asked last week at the film’s London premiere if she would be supporting a strike by Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) members, who were proposing to withhold their labor until major motion picture studios agree to provide a fair share of streaming revenues, better pay, and a plan for responding to the AI revolution that will respect the work of human performers.
“Absolutely!” replied Robbie.
“I very much am in support of all the unions, and I’m a part of SAG, so I would absolutely stand by them,” explained the 33-year-old performer, who has earned nominations for Academy Awards, Golden Globes, and other honors, and whom Time magazine once highlighted as one of “the 100 most influential people in the world.”
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True enough. And so were the roughly 160,000 SAG-AFTRA members, who gave 98 percent support to a strike vote in June. Last Thursday, they joined the more than 11,000 Writers Guild of America members on picket lines, as part of the largest industry-wide walkout since the early 1960s.
Most striking actors are not big stars. They are hard-working artists who struggle to get by in an entertainment industry that is notoriously fickle and is run by studio executives and investors who prioritize profits above people—especially those whose names are not on marquees.
“I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us. I cannot believe it, quite frankly, how far apart we are on so many things. How they plead poverty, that they’re losing money left and right when giving hundreds of millions of dollars to their CEOs. It is disgusting. Shame on them. They stand on the wrong side of history,” said SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher, the star of the 1990s sitcom The Nanny, adding, “This is a moment of history. That is a moment of truth. If we don’t stand tall right now, we are all going to be in trouble. We are all going to be in jeopardy of being replaced by machines and big business who cares more about Wall Street than you and your family.”
Drescher’s focus on working-class economics is an essential part of this strike. It builds solidarity within the union and across the country.
That solidarity is essential, because, as Drescher said, “we’re looking for the long haul. The gravity of a commitment like this is not lost on any of us. It’s major. But we also see that we have no future and no livelihood unless we take this action, unfortunately.”
But solidarity requires an all-in mentality that puts stars and extras on the same picket lines, in order to assure that the studios do not divide and conquer creative workers.
So it is a big deal when major stars, especially those whose high-grossing films are essential to the industry, support the union. Plenty of stars have done just that. Meryl Streep, Glenn Close, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Poehler, Rami Malek, and John Leguizamo were among the more than 300 performers who signed a late-June letter that called for SAG-AFTRA to hold out for a “transformative deal.”
“A strike brings incredible hardships to so many, and no one wants it,” read the letter. “But we are prepared to strike if it comes to that.”
“This is not a moment to meet in the middle,” they declared.
Robbie has a unique platform, because of the immense interest in the premiere of Barbie, a major production that is expected to be one of the most successful films of the year.
And it is no surprise to Australians that she is using that platform to promote labor solidarity.
Born and raised in the northeastern Australian state of Queensland, Robbie began her acting career in her native country, which is home to one of the strongest and most politically engaged entertainment unions in the world: the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance.
A multi-industry union that for decades has sought to combat the consolidation of ownership in media by organizing workers across sectors, the MEAA proudly represents “people working in TV, radio, theatre & film, entertainment venues, recreation grounds, journalists, actors, dancers, sportspeople, cartoonists, photographers, orchestral and opera performers as well as people working in public relations, advertising, book publishing, and website production… in fact everyone who works in the industries that inform or entertain.”
MEAA positions itself as “a thought leader and driver of change” and it takes on big and often controversial fights without apology—for instance, the union has been at the forefront of international efforts to secure the release of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a longtime MEAA member.
Robbie has been active with Actors Equity of Australia, a cofounder of MEAA, throughout her acting career.
She’s made videos in which she not just identifies as a proud union member but urges young performers to “demand your rights” on the job, and to bring in the union if those rights are not respected. “We have the right to a fair go,” she announced in a pro-MEAA statement several years ago. “Not getting a fair go sucks.”
As the Victorian Trades Hall Council, a union federation in the Australian state of Victoria says, “This Barbie is a comrade.”
John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It’s OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.