My second thought after hearing that SAG-AFTRA’s 160,000 workers would be joining the WGA’s 11,500 on strike, was, ‘Thank god. With nothing new being made, I might finally make a dent in my watch lists.’ My first thought was, ‘Thank god. It’s about damn time.’

For The First Time in Forever… 63 Years!

Labor unions and guilds of Hollywood

The last time writers and actors were on strike at the same time was 1960: movies were being shown on TV more and more; but the employment contracts weren’t fairly compensating writers and actors for these reruns.

Now, AI is the NEW major technological inflection point. (Yeah, television sets used to be the AI of the technological ‘frontier’.) Writers don’t want AI taking away their work (and by extension, their pay) by writing scripts; nor do they want their work to be used to train AI — at least not without permission and compensation.

Over the course of the decades between 1960 and 2023, there have been upwards of a dozen separate writers’ and actors’ strikes. Most of the time, a major reason was that technological change — direct-to-video, streaming, etc. — was producing new revenue for the studios, but not the workers. (See: the Industrial Revolution.)

Writers’ Strikes and Streaming, ‘07 & ‘23

Hollywood writers' pay has mostly dropped to the legal minimum

Of course, there have always been other reasons — generally also relating directly to compensation; these technological changes have just often been the breaking point. (And regardless, the existence of the pattern itself is instructive.)

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In 2007, the WGA went on strike mainly for streaming residuals. “Residuals” are compensation that’s proportional to the use of streaming — although what “use of streaming” means isn’t always clearly defined; it typically means some unclear, studio-determined mixture of the number of subscribers to a streaming service, and the number of times a particular series or episode is watched. But the increased salaries that they won from the 2007-08 strike are now being circumvented not so much by new technology, but by just not paying screenwriters salaries: studios are remaking the profession into an extension of the gig economy.

“Writing is turning into a gig economy, where instead of having a job that lasts for a year, you have to piece together eight jobs that last for six weeks.”

Michael Schur, NBC News interview

Strike Solidarity over Similar Concerns

SAG-AFTRA actors on strike, with raised fist salutes

Actors in SAG-AFTRA have similar concerns. The minimum pay and residuals they receive for streaming haven’t kept up with inflation; and even aside from that, those residuals still need to be increased because royalties from broadcast TV reruns are rapidly shrinking as cable boxes go out of style, and streaming grows.

Also on the technological front, actors’ “digital likenesses” are being signed away in their contracts; they literally don’t own the image of their own faces and bodies. Studios are using those likenesses to, among other things, train AI; whether they do this in-house, or sell the data to a company that works on AI, the economics works out the same way in Hollywood: the studios make more money, with none of it going to the actors.

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The third shared concern I’ll discuss here — there are certainly more — is over the gig economy; and especially the extremely stressful and impoverishing effects it has on new and minor actors. Besides asking for greater transparency and data protections in the casting process, the striking actors have also pointed out that extras in movies and shows are losing out on lots of work because studios are scanning their likenesses to then use in productions. So rather than being able to come back in for any reshoots and get paid for that work, these actors only get one day of work, or even just one afternoon.

It’s Not Technological Determinism. It’s CAPITALISM.

Pyramid showing the functions of various classes under capitalism

“The AI demon of speculative fiction is a super intelligence that threatens to dominate by stripping human beings of any agency. The threat of lost agency is real, but not because computers are yet capable of anything similar to, let alone superior to, human intelligence. The threat is real because the satisfaction of corporate greed, and the perfection of political control, requires people to lay aside the aspiration to know what their own minds can do.”

Artifice & Intelligence, Georgetown Law’s Center on Privacy & Technology

Technologies can and do have their own unique, unavoidable effects; and those can sometimes be negative for the physical, mental, social, and ecological health of human beings.

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But all of that, is microscopic compared to the simple fact that we live in a form of society where some people can decide whether or not other people are able to get food, water, housing, healthcare, security, and more. AI could be a tool for writers to support their own efforts and labor. Streaming is a great convenience for all sorts of people for whom TV sets, theater visits, and more just aren’t practicable.

The real world doesn’t work on the logic of the pessimistic technological determinism of Blade Runner-esque cyberpunk. The real world, its current social reality, is working on the logic of capitalism.

That is why Hollywood writers and actors are on strike.

Stay tuned for our ongoing, semiweekly coverage of the writers’ and actors’ strikes.

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