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Union leaders take a confident tone as Labor Day arrives amid high-profile strikes

Striking SAG-AFTRA workers rallied in Boston on Monday.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Amid a national surge in union activism, labor leaders and the state’s top politicians projected confidence on Monday during their annual Labor Day breakfast and at a rally downtown.

The officials’ optimism comes on the heels of a contract victory for UPS delivery drivers and successful union drives at fast food restaurants and cafes. Union members hoped to harness the sense of forward movement in fights still underway, chiefly the massive strike in the entertainment industry.

“We know these greedy exploitative corporate CEOs need to feel the power and sometimes the wrath of workers who understand, it’s better in a union,” said Darlene Lombos, executive secretary-treasurer of the Greater Boston Labor Council, which hosts the gathering each year.

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The breakfast at the Park Plaza hotel took place in the midst of a historic face-off between workers and owners in the film and television industries, which has seen scribes in the Writers Guild of America, and performers in the Screen Actors Guild, on strike since May and July, respectively.

Both have called for pay that better compensates them for their contributions to film and television in an era defined by a pivot to streaming platforms, as well as protection from the negative consequences of artificial intelligence and other technological advancements and their use in creating content.

Their concerns about the structure of the gig economy and the encroachment of AI on their jobs were shared by others in the room.

“Everything we stand for is under attack by greedy CEOs, app-based companies, artificial intelligence, and anything else they can do to increase their profits and screw the workers,” said Steven Tolman, the outgoing president of the Massachusetts AFL-CIO. “Artificial intelligence must have standards. Most importantly, it must have ethics. Without it, we will all be annihilated, sisters and brothers. That is what we all must be fighting for.”

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Senator Ed Markey, right, and Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia danced as they joined a rally Monday in support of striking SAG-AFTRA workers. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

In a speech, Boston Mayor Michelle Wu said she aspired to see the “momentum” of the national labor movement reflected here.

She pointed to some wins at home for labor, including Boston Firefighters Local 718, which she announced had come to a tentative agreement just one day earlier on a contract with the city after months of negotiations.

She also announced her administration is pursuing a “wage theft ordinance” that she said would put “the city of Boston on the side of ensuring that workers get paid.”

Later, after a march to a rally in Downtown Crossing, SAG-AFTRA members said they are still fired up a month and a half into a strike that has brought film and television production to a halt while members fight for a contract they can support.

In a speech, Boston actor and SAG member Daniel Washington urged fellow performers to stay motivated.

“They’re hoping you get tired,” Washington said in a speech, while standing in front of a large black and yellow SAG-AFTRA banner and a crowd of union members on risers. “They’re trying to wait us out. They’re trying to wait for us to run out of money, to lose our apartments, to lose everything we got. I don’t know about y’all, but I’ve been fighting that battle for years, you know what I mean? So we’re good.”

The performers spoke to anxieties about how studio executives might deploy artificial intelligence to use their likenesses in movies or TV shows, without needing to pay for human talent.

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SAG negotiators have been trying to secure commitments from industry leaders not to use AI in a way that would put their jobs in jeopardy or otherwise negatively impact their craft.

“No matter how intelligent you make artificial intelligence, it will always be artificial,” Washington said. “It is never going to be the authentic product—the thing that makes DVDs fly off the shelf, that make the streaming numbers shoot way up. That’s us.”

He was not the only one to express fear of AI’s impact on the profession.

“We’re people, not machines,” Brenda Sonni-Strouble, a Boston actress who has worked in the industry for two decades, said in an interview. “We don’t want to be replicated or duplicated. We want a fair shot.”

Three-year-old Jorani Francis played with a When We Fight We Win sign on Monday at the annual Labor Day breakfast, where the state's top politicians gathered to celebrate the power and promise of unions.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

They were joined at the rally by top elected officials, who said they continued to back striking actors as their protest continues.

“Today we stand with unwavering solidarity with SAG-AFTRA. These artists, these creators, these storytellers are raising their voices and they are demanding the pay they deserve,” said US Senator Elizabeth Warren.

“We have to make sure that you get the pay you deserve, the health care benefits you deserve, the job security you deserve,” said US Senator Ed Markey. “We have to make sure that AI stands for ‘all included.’ Everyone benefits. No one gets left behind.”

US Representative Ayanna Pressley, also in a speech, pointed out that it was playing out right around the 60th anniversary of 1963′s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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“The nation is watching because you are on the front lines of a broader struggle— a struggle as deep as our shared history and a story that is familiar,” Pressley said. “The struggle for jobs and freedom is part of the civil rights movement. A continuation. When we organize, we win.”

Rallies like this one, and the many others SAG members have staged so far this summer, are good for morale given the sacrifices members have had to make, said Andrea Lyman, president of SAG-AFTRA New England.

“Loneliness when you’re not working is very dangerous. This helps with that,” Lyman said. “That camaraderie helps.”

Tom Kemp, the New England union’s vice president for actors and performers, said he was heartened by the backing at the rally of IATSE union members, who work behind-the-scenes in areas like lighting, makeup, and costume design, and have also been out of work amid the actors’ and writers’ strikes.

“When we went on strike, we knew we’d be impacting a million other people around the country in other jobs that we would be shutting down, and it was very difficult for us,” said Kemp, who is on the committee that has been negotiating with studio executives. “So days like this, when all these other unions are standing in solidarity with us and we’re standing in solidarity with them, are really uplifting. It really gives you a little bit more juice.”


Spencer Buell can be reached at spencer.buell@globe.com. Follow him @SpencerBuell.