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AI makes future uncertain for writers and screen actors

Recently it seems like a new generation has discovered unions. Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, REI, Apple–even Amazon–have newly unionized workplaces. Corporations are fighting back–they’re spending $340 million a year for union-avoidance consultants and refusing to come to agreement with many of the new locals.

The recent agreement negotiated by United Parcel Service and the Teamsters–which has still to be voted on by the 340,000 UPS workers–illustrates why we need unions. The company has agreed to install fans in all current trucks and get air conditioning in all new ones. Since 2015 heat has injured 140 workers and killed one.

But the strikes by the Writers’ and Screen Actors’ Guilds are in a whole different world. They’re dealing with future issues, not past ones.

Leaders of the Writers Guild are complaining about the “gigification” of writers’ jobs. That is, fewer actually work for an employer and more have only temporary contracts. They must purchase their own health insurance and pay the employer’s portion of social security taxes.

And a demand for “adequate staffing levels” suggests producers have been pressuring writers to produce more in less time–a problem that medical, manufacturing, and fulfillment workers all face. In addition, writers want “residuals”--payments each time a creative work is shown–for streaming as well as cable. Streaming is predicted to increase 400% by 2030.

But the use of AI (artificial intelligence) is a whole new problem. According to CBS News (May 4), the Writers Guild is asking for a contract that won't allow AI to write or rewrite literary materials, to be used to create source material, or to be trained on materials created by union members.

There’s no question that the industry plans on using AI to do away with some writing jobs. Have we created a world where it is illegal for you or me to plagiarize an author’s work, but it’s okay for AI to absorb a dozen of that author’s works and spit out similar drafts in the writer’s style? It’s possible that the more creative and successful authors would be the easiest to replace by machines.

And the danger reaches beyond a person’s words. The contract proposed to the Screen Actors’ Guild by the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) would allow the use of AI to replicate an actor’s image.

The chief negotiator for the actors claimed that producers attempted to include a proposal that would allow background performers “to be scanned, get one day’s pay, and their companies would own that scan, their image, their likeness and should be able to use it for the rest of eternity on any project they want, with no consent and no compensation” (The Verge, July 13).

AMPTP countered by stating that their proposal would allow usage only within one specific film. The difference may actually indicate progress in negotiations, but would it even be enforceable? If a studio changed the height and hair color, would the image still belong to the original model?

One other disturbing thing about these strikes–I can find no reports that any negotiations are happening. Negotiations in March were reported by the media, but none seem to have been reported since the writers’ strike started 12 weeks ago.

Deadline Hollywood has reported that producers don’t plan to return to negotiations with the Writers Guild until October when strikers would be “financially strained” and ready to accept any terms. The producers denied that, but they didn’t say negotiations were underway.

This is a David-and-Goliath standoff where the giants decide to starve the opposition rather than chance a fight. And it will affect us all.


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