Last summer, Fran Drescher paid a visit to a key state lawmaker to push for legislation that would give TV actors more freedom to take jobs in between seasons.
The issue had been a thorn in the side of SAG-AFTRA, the performers’ union, for at least a decade. The Motion Picture Association had lined up against the bill, saying it would create scheduling chaos and improperly intrude on labor negotiations.
“I schlepped — to Glendale, where his office was. It was triple digits that day,” said Drescher, who was elected SAG-AFTRA president in 2021. “And I said, ‘Make no mistake, we’re the underdog in this.’ And he said, ‘You know, you’re very convincing.’ And I said, ‘That’s why they sent me!’”
The lawmaker, Sen. Anthony Portantino, ultimately agreed to pass the bill through the Appropriations Committee. With the writing on the wall, Netflix agreed to establish “conflict-free windows” after each season, in which actors will be allowed to take other jobs. The other studios quickly followed, marking a major victory for the union. (The legislation was then dropped, having served its function as leverage.)
Drescher’s trek to Glendale on a boiling hot day paid off, and her work with Portantino also sent a message to the industry that she is savvy in the ways of flexing power on behalf of SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000-plus members. Drescher is now preparing to lead the union into its triennial round of bargaining with the major studios, in what is expected to be an unusually difficult negotiation. The union, along with the Writers Guild of America and the Directors Guild of America, is focused on addressing residual formulas that they say provide too little compensation when shows appear on streaming platforms.
The negotiations figure to be the toughest test yet for the former “Nanny” star, who had no experience in union leadership when she ran for president. The union’s internal politics are sharply divided between Drescher’s Unite for Strength faction and the rival Membership First camp. Her opponents alleged that she was simply a figurehead with little grounding in policy details.
But after 17 months at the helm, Drescher can already point to a record of accomplishments. In addition to the deal on options and exclusivity, she recently struck a deal with IMDb, the authoritative film and TV database, that allows performers to remove their age from their profiles — a key concern for older actors concerned that they won’t be considered for younger parts.
In that case, the union had already tried playing hardball, getting California lawmakers to approve a law that banned IMDb from disclosing actors’ ages. But IMDb fought back, and got the courts to throw out the law as an unconstitutional infringement on free speech.
So Drescher tried a charm offensive instead.
She invited the leadership of IMDb — which has been owned by Amazon since 1998 — to her home, “where I like to do a lot of more personal conversations.”
“I have a more global window about how I think that their business model could be better for them, by leveraging my members in a more proactive way,” Drescher said. “They said that, ‘When we met you, we thought it’s going to all be different now.’ And it was. But again, when you’re more of a global thinker and a visionary, I can see what their concerns were. And I can offer them a solution that they didn’t think of themselves.”
IMDb now allows performers to choose whether to provide their ages or not, and also gives them options on how to identify their race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender identity.
Though Drescher was not a union leader before 2021, she did have a lot of experience lobbying for cancer awareness on Capitol Hill. She draws on her skills as a performer — with her famous working-class Queens accent — to get her points across.
“I speak very plainly, so maybe that helps,” she said. “No matter what your party affiliation is, there isn’t one person in Congress that doesn’t enjoy my performance — not one.”
Drescher has already begun working on the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which bargains labor contracts on behalf of the studios. The SAG-AFTRA contract is up on June 30, and the union is currently soliciting input from members on what to seek in the next agreement. Drescher revealed that she had lunch on Feb. 1 with Carol Lombardini, the studios’ lead negotiator.
“We had a beautiful afternoon together,” Drescher said, noting that for the first time, Lombardini and the presidents of all three guilds are women.
Drescher avoided getting into too many specifics about the talks, other than to say that the three unions are all dealing with many of the same issues relating to “this deep dive that we’re taking into the digital age.”
“So we’re gonna just go in and cross things off the list one thing at a time,” she said. “And I feel very confident that it’s gonna be successful. At the end of the day, I like making big and inventive visionary suggestions and not incremental steps.”
Drescher is also working to heal the bitter partisan divide within her own union, which dates from the 2012 merger of the Screen Actors Guild and the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. In recent years, the minority faction — Membership First — has blasted the majority for not doing more to protect the union health plan.
Drescher said she has been deliberate in courting the opposition, sometimes to the chagrin of her own supporters.
“I’m committed to unifying us, and it’s working,” she said. “And my door is always open to everyone. And I want to hear everybody’s points of view. Let’s just talk.”
SAG-AFTRA has been a key player in the industry’s COVID protocols, which were first enacted to help restart production in September 2020. Over the last year, the rules have been gradually relaxed, with strict testing and maxing requirements falling by the wayside. But productions are still allowed to mandate vaccines for “Zone A” workers, which includes on-set performers, and about one in four productions has such a requirement.
Drescher is vaccinated, but she is also against vaccine mandates. Last November, she applauded Disney for dropping its mandate on a dozen shows. Her position puts her in the minority on her own national board, but Drescher has nevertheless done what she can to keep the issue alive.
The union recently conducted a member survey, in which 26% said they, too, oppose the mandates, while 67% said they support them.
“I’m in a minority in terms of feeling like, as a labor union, my obligation is to make sure that all of my members get an equal opportunity to work,” Drescher said.
She said she supports measures to stop the spread of the illness on sets.
“But that doesn’t necessarily mean the vaccine, because not everybody can take the vaccine,” she said. “And other people don’t want to because they live so healthfully.”
In general, she said, there is a difference of opinion between people who trust the Centers for Disease Control and other public health authorities, and those who believe the vaccine causes harmful side effects.
“Some people connect dots. Other people refuse to connect those dots,” she said. “And so my thoughts are that somewhere in the middle, there’s the truth. And I don’t believe that it’s really known yet. And I think that when it comes to what we do with our bodies, that should be a personal choice.”
She noted that the number of productions mandating the vaccine has declined, and she expects that trend to continue as the U.S. comes out of the COVID emergency.
“I have been outspoken about my position on this, but I’m really only one person,” she said. “It’s not a dictatorship. And I have kept the conversation alive.”
Drescher is best known as an actor, but she has also worked as a writer, director and a producer. She is currently adapting “The Nanny,” her hit ’90s sitcom, as a Broadway show. When she was running for union president, some opponents warned that her producing experience would make her more sympathetic to the employer’s perspective.
She argued that her tenure thus far has shown that’s not the case.
“I go out on a limb for the performer every time,” she said. “I feel like the performer is the center of the wheel. And they’re the ones that breathe life into the words on the screen.”
As a recent example of standing up for actors, the union recently courted controversy when it blasted the decision to prosecute Alec Baldwin for the 2021 death of cinematographer Halyna Hutchins on the set of the independent film “Rust.” Hutchins’ death has been felt deeply among below-the-line workers, who often feel that productions risk their safety by cutting corners. SAG-AFTRA’s outspoken opposition risked exacerbating a divide between the two groups of workers.
But, Drescher said, it was the right thing to do.
“The statement that went out was that the safety of props is not the performer’s responsibility,” she said. “The performer’s responsibility is to give a good performance. And that’s why there are so many other departments.”
She added that she would push for an industry-wide change to require Airsoft guns, which cannot fire blank ammunition.
“Any weapon of any kind on any set that’s for storytelling should be a facsimile — a toy, basically,” she said. “And then everything that looks explosive about it should be put in in post. And then we never have to have this conversation again.”