Why Fran Fine — sorry, Fran Drescher — is the union queen we all neededThe actress is making headlines for her fiery speech in support of the SAG-AFTRA strike
By Mira Fox
This story was originally published in the Forward. Click here to get the Forward’s free email newsletters delivered to your inbox.
Fran Drescher is fast becoming a folk hero. The star of The Nanny is making a new role for herself: union queen and working-class hero.
Drescher is the president of SAG-AFTRA, the actor’s union, which just joined the screenwriter’s union, WGA, on strike — effectively shutting down the entire TV and film industry. The two unions haven’t simultaneously gone on strike since 1960, when Ronald Reagan was the president of SAG-AFTRA. (Fran for president?)
WGA and SAG-AFTRA are on strike largely over issues caused by the streaming industry, such as low pay and lack of residual payments. A union spokesperson said that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers — the management, across the bargaining table from SAG-AFTRA — even proposed scanning background actors’ likenesses to use in perpetuity in exchange for a single day’s pay.
In practice, however, union negotiations are just as much about optics as contracts. Especially for a high-profile negotiation like one involving major studios and famous actors, it’s important to get the public on your side. And Drescher is nailing her role — not just as a rabble-rousing icon for SAG-AFTRA, but for the labor movement at large.
On one hand, the SAG-AFTRA strike is great for visibility; it’s one thing to know that the largely invisible writers behind your favorite shows and movies are unhappy, but it’s another to see the faces of beloved characters chanting on the picket line. You feel like you know them — especially today, when everyone has parasocial relationships with their favorite celebrities — which makes it easier to empathize and come down on their side, instead of the side of the suited men who dominate the AMPTP.
But your favorite actors are also probably very rich. The public generally associates actors with red carpets where they’re wearing designer gowns or suits, or paparazzi shots exiting sports cars or mansions. Don’t they have enough of money? (This isn’t, of course, representative of all actors, and most members of SAG-AFTRA are very much not rich; they work as side characters and background actors for day fees.)
Enter Fran Drescher. First of all, Drescher does not read as a stereotypical rich person or celebrity. She doesn’t have a high-class, carefully moderated accent — she has a strong, nasal Queens twang. She went to public high school in Queens and dropped out of CUNY. She showed up to the picket line in a baseball cap and a tee.
And secondly, she basically is the character she’s most famous for — they even went to the same high school. In The Nanny, which ran from 1993-1999, Fran Fine was a fiery working-class Jewish woman from Queens suddenly thrust into the world of the rich — a “gefilte fish out of water,” as Drescher wrote about herself. If you loved Fran on The Nanny, it’s easy to love Fran, and by proxy, the union, in real life.
Drescher also makes for great memes, and memes, these days, basically drive discourse and shift public opinion. In one episode of The Nanny, Fran wore a skirt of Andy Warhol’s Mao print; now, a tweet of the scene is viral, with commenters cheering on her anti-capitalism.
In another, Fran refuses to enter a restaurant while busboys are striking, telling her boss, the wealthy Mr. Sheffield, the rules her mother taught her: “Never make contact with a public toilet” and “never, ever, ever cross a picket line.” If she did, her aunt would “roll over in her grave — which her union paid for.” Obviously, this clip, too, is viral.
Nanny Fine was always staunchly pro-labor, and so is Drescher, who regularly fires off typo-laden tweets about the evils of capitalism. When reporters on the picket line asked her about Disney CEO Bob Iger’s anti-union comments, she said, “I would lock him behind doors and never let him talk to anybody” before calling him, along with every other CEO prioritizing their own wealth, “land barons of a Medieval time.”
And Drescher isn’t limiting her remarks; she’s excoriating wealthy CEOs across industries. “We don’t stand here just for us,” she told CNN from the picket line. “We stand on behalf of workers across America, and around the world, because what’s happening to us is not unique, it’s just that we’re able to get people like you to listen to us.”
If SAG-AFTRA can nail its image, it could buoy the already growing public support for the labor movement, freeing it from stereotypes about the mob and Jimmy Hoffa.
Drescher has received criticism online for both supporting Israel and opposing vaccine mandates. She has some weird views on Western medicine and called Bernie Sanders a sellout for participating in the Democratic Party. But in a way, this is part of her appeal; she’s not a carefully polished celebrity delivering PR soundbites, but a palpably real, average Jane, with everything that brings.
In any case, she’s leading a labor movement, not the NIH or the State Department, and she’s been consistently pro-labor since, well, ever. And so has Fran Fine.