SAG-AFTRA‘s top negotiator has never done this before.
Duncan Crabtree-Ireland has worked for the union for most of his adult life. In that time, he has become a master of the details. He taught himself Spanish to work on an international treaty on intellectual property. Then he bargained with Telemundo, switching between Spanish and English to hammer out the first U.S. labor contract for telenovela actors.
But until this year, he had never led contract negotiations with the major film and TV studios. As it turned out, his first year at the helm was also the first that SAG-AFTRA went on strike on that contract in 43 years. As a result, Crabtree-Ireland has had to grow into a new public role.
He is no longer the adviser sitting behind the negotiators with all the answers. He is now the leader. Around Hollywood, as he mulls the final terms of a deal to end the strike, the question has become: “Can he land the plane?”
The strike has gone on longer than anyone anticipated — 117 days as of Tuesday. But it is by no means the longest, or most tedious, negotiation that Crabtree-Ireland has been involved in.
Starting from a blank page, it took 16 months to reach a deal with Telemundo.
The network had built a studio in Miami to produce Spanish-language scripted shows, mostly nighttime soap operas. But the actors on those shows had none of the protections that U.S. actors take for granted, like residuals and pension and health contributions.
Much of Crabtree-Ireland’s job consisted of listening to the actors on the negotiating committee. One of the issues they discussed was the lack of standard dressing rooms. He would then translate those concerns into proposals that could be presented to Telemundo.
“He’s a very patient guy,” said Pablo Azar, who chaired the committee. “We the actors would heat up things. We are more emotional. Duncan was not emotional at all. He would stay calm and explain everything.”
Telemundo resisted many of the actors’ demands, and warned that it could relocate production to Mexico if SAG-AFTRA sought terms that were too rich.
“It was a very long process,” said Ana Carolina Grajales, another member of the committee. “Nothing was taken for granted.”
She, too, recalled that Crabtree-Ireland had a talent for boiling down complicated subjects into comprehensible language.
“When we were negotiating, he would find a way to express what we wanted,” she said.
She and Crabtree-Ireland now co-host SAG-AFTRA’s podcast in Spanish.
At one point, he thought he might be a professional diplomat. As an undergraduate at Georgetown, he studied international relations, and was on a path to joining the U.S. Foreign Service.
But family considerations put him on a different career track. At the time, the government did not offer full spousal benefits for gay couples.
“That was a less enlightened time in our country,” Crabtree-Ireland said in an interview.
His husband would have had to follow him to overseas postings without a work authorization or a diplomatic passport. If there was an emergency, he wouldn’t be guaranteed exfiltration.
“That just wasn’t a risk I could ask him to take,” he said.
Instead, he got a law degree and worked briefly as a prosecutor before joining SAG-AFTRA in 2000. Once there, he rose quickly to the rank of general counsel, and threw himself into international matters. One of his key assignments was to represent the union in negotiations for the WIPO Beijing treaty, which establishes intellectual property rights for performers.
John McGuire, a longtime SAG-AFTRA executive, said the job combined a strong moral component with a “pure intellectual challenge.”
“He was a natural for that area,” McGuire said. “He was championing the underdog.”
In the interview, Crabtree-Ireland said some of his work at SAG-AFTRA has roots in his earlier interest in international affairs.
“Diplomacy and labor negotiation can have some similar elements, for sure,” he said. Key to both, he said, is “helping to solve disputes through negotiation and discussion.”
His adversaries, who prefer not to be named talking about sensitive negotiations, pay him grudging respect. One of his key skills, one said, is “issue spotting.”
“Duncan is a masterful advocate,” this person said, noting that he had a gift for combing through dense contract language and flagging hidden loopholes.
That talent has been particularly useful in navigating the issue of artificial intelligence. Crabtree-Ireland took an interest in that subject well before it became the hot topic this year, and has been giving lectures about the potential risks — and benefits — of AI for a while.
In recent weeks, studio negotiators have grown increasingly frustrated as SAG-AFTRA has thrown up one hypothetical after another on the issue. From the studio standpoint, some of the concerns seem a little farfetched.
But Crabtree-Ireland is also adept at coming up with solutions, said Gabrielle Carteris, the immediate past president of SAG-AFTRA. In 2021, she recommended him to succeed David White as the guild’s executive director.
“He’s a very empathetic person,” Carteris said. “He is not a positional person, which makes him a great leader. He’s able to listen to everybody without imposing a way of being. He can hear all sides and come up with a creative suggestion that can really help us get to the endgame.”
The question now is whether he and the SAG-AFTRA negotiating committee can get the deal the last few feet over the line.
“At the end of the day, the ones who are making decisions are the committees,” said Azar, the chair of the Telemundo negotiating committee. “We either approve or disapprove the proposals. Duncan would come with a proposal and the committee would say, ‘No, we don’t want that.’ Then they have to create something new for us to approve. That happened a lot of times.”
In other words, Crabtree-Ireland can only do so much.
“He’s the head, but he has a lot of people behind him,” Azar said. “He can’t just make decisions out of his gut.”