Reflecting on the WGA and SAG-AFTRA Strikes

In this week's newsletter, Orla from our marketing team writes about the strike action that is ensuing within the entertainment industry. As AI begins to have implications for real people and their jobs, workers need legal safeguards to protect their livelihoods.

This past summer was far from smooth sailing for the entertainment industry. While Barbenheimer’s $2 billion combined global box-office success and the ensuing cultural phenomenon marked a significant win for both creatives and studios, such positive headlines were few and far between.

Still in recovery from the pandemic’s impact, the headlines were instead dominated by disappointing box-office returns (see the newest instalment of Indiana Jones for instance), continuing labour strikes, and resulting stalled or cancelled productions. Notably, this summer’s labour strikes illuminated the challenges confronting the entertainment and broader media industries in adapting to the rise of AI.

The Hollywood labour strikes commenced in early May when the Writers Guild of America (WGA) voted to strike. It evolved into the first dual strike in 63 years when the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) joined the writers in July. Both strikes arose due to numerous issues which have arisen since the contracts between both labour unions and the body representing the studios – Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) – were last re-negotiated. Such challenges have made a career in the industry increasingly more difficult for the average actor or writer. Concerns ranged from profit-sharing from streaming platform content to the perceived disadvantage facing actors without sophisticated high-end at-home camera setups for self-tape auditions. Such challenges suggest an industry trajectory where only the most elite stars escape the gig-worker designation, substantially minimising the ability to earn a living wage.

Central to the concerns of both unions was AI and technology. Actors and writers alike voiced alarm regarding AI’s potential to supplement or even replace a workforce encompassing writers, background actors, designers, and other creatives. While this might seem overly cautious given the current capabilities of prevalent AI technologies, the immediate need for labour protections against AI’s influence is underscored by the studio’s attitudes. For example, Variety reported that a mid-July proposal by the AMPTP to SAG-AFTRA would permit the studios to “scan a background performer’s image, compensate them for half a day’s work, and then utilise that individual’s likeness indefinitely without their approval.” This effectively would mean that once studios had built a stock of digital replicas, work for extras would become obsolete, likely within a few years.

In a recent positive turn, the writers’ strike is on the brink of conclusion, with the WGA heralding a deal as “exceptional”, incorporating robust AI labour protections. These hard-earned protections include:

  • Exclusion of AI literary material as source content, ensuring AI-generated material won’t diminish a writer’s credit or separated rights;
  • Prohibitions against studios mandating writer usage of AI, ensuring AI isn’t an alternative to robust writing teams;
  • Safeguards against utilising writers’ content to educate AI tools, such as ChatGPT.

While the separate actors’ strike may persist for some months, it too anticipates resolution by year’s end.
The imminent end of the dual strikes is indeed a celebratory milestone. However, it likely heralds the advent of numerous challenges facing workers seeking protection against burgeoning AI technologies, especially within the media. As The Guardian highlighted, legacy media like The Mirror and Express have recently harnessed AI for content creation. Such progress is alarming, given the perceived inadequacy of UK employment laws in safeguarding workers against these shifts.

Considering the vast potential of AI technology, it is fitting to label the writers’ strike as the first of many coming workplace battles between humans and AI. But it is a hopeful sign that in the first of these battles, the people won.

Orla Phelan, Marketing Team

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