Shortly after learning she had received her second Emmy nomination for her work on Abbott Elementary, Sheryl Lee Ralph says, “I feel like I’ve been hit with a bag of emotions, and most of them are so wonderful.”
Ralph won best supporting actress in a comedy last year for playing Barbara, the eponymous school’s veteran teacher, and she could repeat again — but not before she fulfills another duty. Ralph is currently part of the committee negotiating SAG-AFTRA’s new contract as the possibility of an actors strike looms. The deadline for talks is 11:59 p.m. PT.
“We’re fighting for our art,” Ralph tells THR of the SAG negotiations. “We’re fighting for what we love, and what we know people love. We’re not big million-dollar companies. No, we’re people, and we want to enjoy what we do, and we want to make a living at it. That’s what this is about.”
Ralph was drawn into union service thanks to her Abbott Elementary co-star Lisa Ann Walter, with whom she serves on the negotiating committee.
During the first season of the series, Ralph was “infuriated” about changes to the union’s affiliated health plan and how that was affecting older members. “[Walter] said, ‘That’s exactly why you should be in union service,’” remembers Ralph. “And I said, ‘Lisa, I do not want to be in union service.’ She said, ‘Sheryl, the union needs you. I need you because we have to do this for everybody else, not just ourselves.’ And I was like, ‘Girl, please, no.’”
Walter convinced Ralph, and she ran for office. Two years later, she’s a member of SAG-AFTRA’s executive committee, and her life is “completely different.”
As Ralph explains, she has been in the business for over 40 years, and has only recently ascended to the level of “overnight sensation” where she can speak out and be heard. “I have worked these contracts,” she says. “I have worked my way up. I know what it’s like to work just long enough to be able to survive on unemployment to the next job.”
On the call, Ralph wanted to dispel the notion that everyone in SAG is a “big star” making “millions” or even that the majority of members are series regulars who make “good money.” “We’re talking about plain, old, ordinary, working class people who in 40 years have not gotten a cost of living raise,” she said. She added: “And somehow they’re making people who are just fighting to live look like the bad guys.”
Ralph recognizes that a strike will be difficult. “I’ve been through strikes before,” she says. “I’m one of those people: I’ve got to keep oil in my lamp.” In the past, she says, she saw friends lose their homes and go through other hardships.
“I know that should there be a strike, it will hurt. It might hurt some people more. It might hurt some people less, but if we are able to get an understanding with the larger corporations who do not necessarily understand how we do art because they crunch numbers, and if they think that artificial intelligence is better than a human being, we need to pause and talk about this,” she says. “If they think that you should be happy with what you’re making? No, I’d be happy if I was making what you’re making.”
Ralph continues: “We will rise up after this, and we will be on another level. Because finally the artists are strong enough to say, wait a minute. I matter in this picture. When it comes to entertainment, I matter.”
Sheryl Lee Ralph on Emmy Nom and Potential SAG-AFTRA Strike: “We’re Fighting for Our Art”