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.
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.
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.”