Fran Drescher: Union boss who turned tables on Hollywood suits



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Fran Drescher may have been “The Nanny” in another life. But as the president of SAG-AFTRA, she turned the tables on Hollywood’s power crowd.

Drescher last year emerged as an unlikely labor leader and champion of the little guy. Best known for her zany 1990s sitcom character with the thick Queens, N.Y., accent, Drescher became one of the most powerful people in Los Angeles by holding firm, despite pressure and personal attacks, until her 160,000-member performers union won its most generous deal in decades. The contract brought an estimated $1 billion in gains for members over three years.

In an industry shaped over the decades by bombastic and hard-charging men, Drescher embraced her idiosyncratic and unabashedly female style. She offered spiritual teachings and brought a Jellycat plush toy to the negotiating table, positioning the small, smiling white heart at her place opposite Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger to remind the CEOs that they, too, could lead with heart.

“Whatever I do, I don’t do halfway,” Drescher, 66, told The Times. “I bring my own sense of self, my Buddhist wisdom and a lot of chutzpah.”

Initially, entertainment executives anticipated last year’s labor tensions would follow a predictable pattern: Screenwriters, represented by the Writers Guild of America, would strike but eventually lose momentum and turn on one another, creating internal fractures that would prompt union leaders to cave and accept a mediocre deal.

The studio chiefs underestimated Drescher and SAG-AFTRA chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, who led guild members to the picket lines in mid-July, joining the WGA. The actors’ strike immediately intensified the pain felt by studios and reinvigorated the scribes, who’d already spent 2½ months off the job. Nearly all Hollywood movie and scripted TV production halted. Stars refused to promote their projects and some movies tanked at the box office. The studios had to wage a two-pronged battle.

It was Drescher who helped to reframe the fight not as a contract dispute between studios and actors, but as part of a larger class struggle in America. Standing before a phalanx of cameras and reporters at SAG-AFTRA’s Wilshire Boulevard headquarters on July 13, the TV star scolded Hollywood’s celebrated executives for bowing to Wall Street values while leaving lower-level workers behind.

“I am shocked by the way the people that we have been in business with are treating us,” Drescher said sternly that day. “… 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.”

Drescher’s electric and improvised speech, which prompted cheers and tears on picket lines, elevated the strike into a cause célèbre. It helped unite Hollywood’s labor guilds, despite the loss of work and the damage to the local economy, because members saw themselves in a shared fight for the survival of their professions.

In what was dubbed her “Norma Rae” moment, Drescher seemed to channel Sally Field’s Oscar-winning portrayal of a defiant North Carolina textile mill worker turned union organizer. Some studio executives privately pooh-poohed Drescher, dismissing her tactics and presentation as a theatrical performance.

She quickly became the chief irritant of members of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which negotiates on behalf of Disney, Netflix and other studios. But the alliance eventually bent to Drescher’s demands for bonuses for actors on successful streaming shows and protections against the threat of artificial intelligence. She wrangled the famously fractious and partisan SAG-AFTRA membership throughout the strike and contract ratification. Members in December voted overwhelmingly in favor of a deal despite some concerns that the AI protocols were not sufficient.

The Times sat down with Drescher in late November. She described her “defining moment,” her leadership during the strike and challenges for women in power. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What role did your personal strengths play in what you accomplished last year?

I don’t think that I could have gotten through 2023 without my Buddhist wisdom, which helped guide me. People were trying to diminish me, diminish a woman in power, [but] as long as you stay in your center, and remain authentic, and see everything as an opportunity, then you can deflect and grow and become more empowered to meet the moment.

When you ran for SAG-AFTRA president in 2021, what did you think you were getting into, and what surprised you most?

The union was very divided and I was determined to fix that. There was a major issue with IMDb [displaying actors’ ages, which some people viewed as problematic], and I was determined to fix that. I was determined to be a nonpartisan leader. I had ambitions to give us more strength in Washington, D.C., to put us more in the zeitgeist … to elevate the union in a way that moved us from being the largest entertainment union in the world to being the most powerful.

When SAG-AFTRA began talks with the studio alliance before the strikes, there seemed to be some progress. At what point did you decide that a strike was necessary?

We seemed to be making inroads but we were not working on deal-breaker issues, such as a new stream of revenue in streaming. I saw the disconnect between the contract, which has been incrementally improved since 1960, and the dramatic changes in the business model that we are living with today. They kept saying, “There’s no way you’re gonna get like a new stream of revenue.” And we kept saying that this issue is not going away. We gave them an unprecedented 12-day extension to make sure that we left no stone unturned. But there wasn’t a lot accomplished during those 12 days — except the big studios had more time to promote their summer movies — so I felt a little duped. But in fairness, we knew that once we went on strike, there was no turning back.

What did you want to accomplish in your speech on July 13, the day the strike was called?

Everything that came out of my mouth was what I honestly felt. The gods were looking over me because I didn’t flub. It came out smoothly and ended sharply and it reverberated around the world. I told my negotiating committee that everybody has to understand that we are on the front lines of a workers’ movement. This is bigger than just us. But we’re on the front lines because of who we are. So let’s take that responsibility seriously because we are at an inflection point.

This was your first contract negotiation with the AMPTP. Were you intimidated to be facing the most powerful executives in Hollywood?

They didn’t intimidate me because I have been through so much in my life. But I was surprised by a lot. Tactics that might have worked in the past, such as the need to resist and try to intimidate, the lack of respect and countless attempts to diminish us didn’t work.

Did the studio chiefs underestimate you and SAG-AFTRA?

Without question. This deal that we negotiated is three times the [amount of gains in] the last deal. That’s historic — nobody has ever made a billion-dollar deal. We needed to carve a new revenue stream. After they used all of their low-hanging-fruit tactics to finish us off and wait us out, it became clear that was not working for them. So they had to lean in. They thought our resolve wasn’t as strong as it was.

What was the energy in the room when the studio heads were present after negotiations resumed in October?

It was pleasant and polite. There were times when we didn’t talk about the deal, there were times when we broke into laughter, but there was a cordiality to it.

You previously told The Times that you tried to inject humanity, including bringing your plush toy heart, into the negotiations. Was that Fran the leader — or something else?

Well, Fran the leader is something else. That’s what people have to get used to. I did bring humanity to the table and a recognition that decisions we were making in that room were going to affect not only us, but the future of workers and the shape of our industry. Yes, the men would get a little hot under the collar — the men, not the one woman [NBCUniversal Studio Group Chair Donna Langley] — and I said, “Let’s dial it down.” You don’t need to give me all that male aggression. It doesn’t work; it’s misplaced.

In Hollywood and beyond, why are there so few women at the top?

We don’t have time to list all the reasons. It’s cultural and it’s by design. Legislating a woman’s body is trying to put women back in “their place,” because the higher they climb up the ladder, the more they become a threat. The 21st century must move toward the feminine. The 20th century ideals of dog-eat-dog or might-makes-right — all of that has painted us into an unfortunate corner that we won’t be able to escape without a lot of female energy and leadership. Being surrounded by aggressive male energy through this whole process was disheartening. It made me feel that as long as the people on the global stage are aggressive men, there is not a lot of hope for a peaceful future.

What do you see as your biggest accomplishment last year?

The contract is monumental but it’s what the contract does, not only in terms of money and protections but the psyche of our union. That has been elevated. We have a presence, a voice, a power and significance that we didn’t have before. We’re not a peon in this industry; we’re a partner and the foundational contributor to the entire operation.

What advice would you give women and others who have found their voices diminished in the workplace or in life?

Everything that’s presented is an opportunity. They were trying to discredit me. They never talked about how Duncan [Crabtree-Ireland] was in the negotiating room — only me. Everything was exaggerated, like I was being frivolous. Hopefully they learned that going after a woman in that way was old-school and it doesn’t work anymore. It wasn’t going to work with this lady.

It was important to me to show women and girls what female leadership could look like. And if that makes certain men uncomfortable, if they need to put me down for being who I am, then they’re gonna have to pay a price. In the end, they’re going to look ignorant. As women, we don’t have to emulate male energy; we can lead with dignity, with intellect and with empathy. We can be exactly who we are and still rock a red lip.

Times senior producer Karen Foshay contributed to this report.



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