Family Legacy Inspires SAG-AFTRA Strike Leader

Sue Berch was 6 years old the first time she marched on a picket line.

Her father, George Berch, was part of the controversial New York City teachers’ strike of 1968, which began with a walkout in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville School District over the firing of 19 white, union teachers by the newly instated community school board, largely comprised of Black and Puerto Rican members. “My father was a very staunch union man,” Berch recalled in a recent interview. “His belief was that when your union goes on strike, you must stand with them.”

On a September day, 55 years after her first picket, Berch led a group of members of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists and Writers Guild of America in song outside Netflix’s New York headquarters. Clad in “SAG-AFTRA Strong” tee shirts and baseball caps, the group circled around East 19th Street, as Berch belted out “Solidarity forever! The union makes us strong!” to the tune of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Her booming voice belies her 5-foot-3 stature.

Berch, an actor, singer and longtime SAG-AFTRA member, is one of the union’s strike captains. On July 14, about 160,000 actors under SAG-AFTRA went on strike after weeks of contract negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents major studios and streamers, including Amazon/MGM, Apple, NBCUniversal, Disney/ABC/Fox, Netflix, Paramount/CBS, Sony and Warner Brothers.

The decision to stop work came about 10 weeks after the writers walked off their jobs once their union’s negotiations with the studios fell through. Both contract negotiations focused on many of the same issues, including residuals, wages, and the threat posed by artificial intelligence in the entertainment industry. The joint walkout marked the first time that the unions went on strike at the same time since 1960. The writers’ strike officially ended Sept. 27 after 148 days.

Berch’s passion for union organizing comes from her bloodline. Her grandmother, Anna Berchofsky, immigrated to the United States in 1911 from the Russian Empire at age 16. She soon found a factory job working on men’s vests and joined the International Ladies Garment Workers Union, whose members were incensed by the recent Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in which 146 employees perished. “She only had one pair of shoes,” Berch said of her grandmother, “and would put cardboard in them to cover the holes while she walked the picket line.”

Berch found her calling at a young age.

“I’m an actor, that’s who I’ve been since I was 8,” she said. In addition to being in SAG-AFTRA, she is also a member of the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents live theater performers, and its United Kingdom counterpart. Her acting roles have largely been that of an “everywoman,” ranging from a TSA agent to a librarian in TV commercials.

In 2000, Berch served as a strike captain during a nationwide walkout against the American Association of Advertising Agencies when SAG-AFTRA was two separate unions. During the negotiations, Berch’s father began having chest pains, so she took him to get an angiogram in the city, and then back to the Long Island residence where he and her mother lived. As soon as they arrived back home, her father turned to her and said, “Get the hell out of my house! You might have a deal—get back to the picket line.”

She returned to the city on the next train and went straight to the line. A few hours later, she called to check in on him and he began to slur his words. “I said, ‘Dad, I think you’re having a stroke,’” Berch recalled. “He said, ‘That’s fine, you stay put.’ He went back to the hospital, and it turns out he did have a mild stroke.”

Berch’s father lived for another 12 years. His commitment to organized labor lives on in his daughter.

Berch and her colleagues on the picket line are representative of today’s “hot labor summer,” that saw strikes by the actors, writers, United Auto Workers and hotel workers in Southern California, as well as the ratification of a historic UPS labor contract.

“We’re having a union revival,” Berch said. “People are starting to remember that the union built the middle class.” A Gallup poll in August 2022 marked the highest level of support for organized labor that the public opinion research firm has recorded since 1965, with 71% of Americans approving of unions. That support slipped to 67% in 2023. A separate Gallup poll released in August found that 67% of Americans support the actors over the studios in the strike.

Just like Berch’s grandmother and father before her, she wants to influence the next generation of union organizers. “I have a very strong belief that it is our job to talk to those younger than us and pass on our wisdom,” she said.

Alexis Nelis is an actor and SAG-AFTRA captain who has been on the receiving end of Berch’s wisdom. The two met on the picket line when they were assigned to co-captain a Netflix rally.

“She was saying right away, ‘You remind me so much of me when I was going through the first strike [in 2000]’ and she was telling me a little bit of her experience and [I] felt like ‘Wow, OK, at least we have people that have been through this before — they know what to expect. We can take their advice; we can go to them when it is getting harder.’”

Nelis said Berch is now playing an important role in helping her peers get through the personal strain of the walkout. “People are not doing great, but I do think that they feel such a big sense of community when they come to the lines,” Nelis said. “Being able to talk with other actors, especially people that have been through a strike before, like Sue, I think that is one of the most beneficial kinds of alternative medicines.”

About the author(s)

Sara Braun is a journalist and M.S. student at the Columbia School of Journalism.