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Socialist Actor Ed Asner Fought for Labor

Ed Asner was an immensely talented actor. He was also an uncompromising union militant who fought for lower-paid actors and against Ronald Reagan’s murderous interventions in Central America.

Ed Asner and Dennis Weaver carry picket signs as part of a nationwide strike of SAG-AFTRA members. (Getty Images)

As tributes pour in for legendary actor Ed Asner, who died on August 29 at the age of ninety-one, many are rightly pointing to his lifelong dedication to left activism. Best known for portraying lovable curmudgeons like Lou Grant and Carl Fredrickson, Asner was also an outspoken opponent of US intervention in Central America during the 1980s, when he served as president of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).

Though Asner said at the time that his public solidarity with revolutionary leftist movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua was separate from his official duties as SAG president, his trade unionism and principled politics were intertwined. He was a unionist who always pushed the labor movement to fight for the rights of all workers, in the United States and around the world.

A Natural Union Leader

Asner decided to run for SAG’s presidency in 1981, aiming to strengthen the union. The previous year, television and movie actors had staged a ninety-four-day strike to demand a higher share of earnings from sales in the nascent cable and video markets. On the picket lines, Asner emerged as a natural leader and spokesperson for the union.

But when SAG officers eventually settled for a contract that allowed movies to be shown for one year before actors could begin receiving residuals, Asner was disappointed. He soon joined a caucus of other rank-and-file SAG members who wanted to push the union to fight harder for its members.

“You’re either a union or you’re not; you either go on strike for issues and know what you’re striking for or you don’t,” he said.

Once elected SAG president, Asner called on big-name movie stars to unite in solidarity with low-paid, working actors by pushing for a merger with the smaller Screen Extras Guild — an idea stars like Charlton Heston (himself a former SAG president) and Robert Conrad scoffed at with an air of elitism.

“We’re a guild, not a union,” Conrad insisted. “How can you have a union where some members earn over $1 million a year and some less than $2,500?”

In the midst of the merger debate, Asner began using his celebrity status to speak out against US military aid to violent right-wing forces in Central America, including El Salvador’s military regime and the Nicaraguan Contras — bringing him into conflict with yet another former SAG president: Ronald Reagan.

As Ed Rampell details, Asner’s role in donating funds for medical assistance to El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front landed him in hot water with the political and media establishment — leading eventually to the cancellation of his CBS series Lou Grant.

He also generated anger for backing the controversial air-traffic controllers strike in 1981, joining them on the picket lines and fundraising to support them after they were all fired by Reagan.

His intra-union opponents like Heston relentlessly criticized him for these actions, but Asner was unapologetic.

“I regret none of what I did, or what I said, or what I championed,” he said. “Now, if I become sacrificed, that’s all right, too. I’ve had a wonderful career, and if someone tries to cut it short because of what I may be doing, that’s too bad.”

The majority of SAG’s membership stuck by Asner, reelecting him to the union presidency in 1983 — though it would take another nine years before his desired merger with the Screen Extras Guild was finally consummated. (SAG would later also merge with the American Federation of Television and Radio Artists [AFTRA], in 2012.)

During his second term as SAG president, Asner doubled down on his Central America solidarity activism by becoming a staunch opponent of the AFL-CIO’s aggressively anti-communist foreign policy.

For years, the labor federation partnered with the State Department and the CIA to divide foreign unions along Cold War battle lines. This was especially true in Latin America, where the AFL-CIO’s government-funded American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) was actively undermining leftist movements since the early 1960s.

By the 1980s, the federation’s leadership was battling Reagan on domestic issues, but it actually supported Reagan’s Central America policy. AIFLD was on the ground in El Salvador attempting to prop up the US-backed counterinsurgency government, while constantly lambasting the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua. The top institutions of the American labor movement were aiding the United States’ support of viciously violent and anti-democratic right-wing forces in Central America.

At the 1985 AFL-CIO convention in Anaheim, Asner joined a handful of other national union presidents in denouncing AIFLD and calling for a better approach to international labor solidarity — the first time an open debate over the federation’s foreign policy had ever been held at a convention.

“It does not make me proud to see us bolstering the foreign policies of those whose stated goals include the destruction of our own labor movement,” Asner said on the convention floor, referring to Reagan. “I love the labor movement and the things it stands for. It makes me more of a human being. That’s why I’m here. It is because I love the labor movement that I don’t want to see it sullied by any foreign policy that belies our highest ideals.”

Thanks in part to Asner’s outspokenness, much of the labor movement broke with AFL-CIO leaders and came out against continued military aid to the Contras and the Salvadoran government. On April 25, 1987, up to forty-five thousand rank-and-file union members from twenty different unions gathered on the National Mall, along with tens of thousands of others, to protest Reagan’s Central America policy. One of the keynote speakers at the rally was Asner.

A Legacy That Will Live On

After completing his second term as union president in 1985, Asner continued calling for a more righteous labor movement over the next several decades. Most recently, he was one of the leading voices challenging a dramatic overhaul to SAG-AFTRA’s health plan.

The change, which went into effect at the start of this year, raised the annual earnings eligibility for SAG-AFTRA health care coverage from $18,040 to $25,950 — resulting in nearly twelve thousand of the union’s lowest-paid members losing their insurance, including many seniors, in the midst of an ongoing pandemic.

“I am horrified that a union that I love, that I led, could do this to its membership,” Asner said last August when the health care overhaul was announced. “It’s shameful.”

The union’s current leadership said the move was necessary to prevent the health care fund from going bankrupt, and points to other insurance options for members like the new AFL-CIO Medicare Advantage program and expanded COBRA coverage from the American Rescue Plan.

In December, Asner became the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the SAG-AFTRA health plan’s trustees, alleging a breach of fiduciary duty and discrimination against seniors. Earlier this week, a federal judge denied a motion to dismiss the lawsuit.

Meanwhile, SAG-AFTRA is in the middle of a heated election for the union’s presidency, pitting Matthew Modine (known for Full Metal Jacket and Stranger Things) against Fran Drescher (star of the ’90s sitcom The Nanny). Modine represents a reform caucus — supported by Asner before his death — angered by the changes to the health plan, while Drescher is backed by the union’s established leadership. The votes will be counted on September 2.

Whatever the results, Asner’s legacy of principled stands and international solidarity will live on, both in SAG-AFTRA and in the broader labor movement.

“Different people remember me for different things, and that’s great,” he tweeted last month. “But the one thing I hope I am remembered for is that I tried to make the world a better place.”