From the incomparable dialogue of Succession to Ted Lasso’s goofy metaphors, we’ve all delighted in the endless options streaming has provided. But, behind the scenes, it has come at a massive cost.
The streaming business model that has generated millions of hours of entertainment and billions of dollars for Amazon, Netflix and other platforms has sliced away writers’ earnings and degraded their conditions. For many, it has turned their jobs into “gigs” rather than careers
As if the stresses of streaming were not enough, ChatGPT and other versions of generative AI pose new threats for writers, who rightly fear that studios will use AI as another tool to erode their intellectual property rights and job security.
In response, the Writers’ Guild of America, East and West, members of UNI Global Union, proposed basic guardrails to prevent an AI-generated catastrophe, but the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers responded with an inadequate, insulting offer and the two sides are likewise far apart on pay. And so, it’s no surprise that the writers are now on strike to win fair and stable pay. But what might be shocking is how pivotal the fight of these 12,000 union members is for workers across the world.
Indeed, these writers are fighting for all of us. Generative AI models could touch millions of jobs over the next decade. By launching the first strike ever where AI is a key bargaining issue, the WGA are on the frontlines of determining whether workers will share in the benefits of digitalization, or whether generative AI will be yet another tool to drive inequality.
Now is the time to do it. While we are inundated with articles about generative AI, reports of the actual impacts on workers have been few and far between. Most of the predictions are highly speculative, and many predict gradual shifts rather than sudden losses.
The first real world study of generative AI on a large scale was released last month. It analysed the performance of 5,500 call centre workers and found that when generative AI was added into the customer service employees’ work tools, they were able to resolve customer problems 14 per cent faster. But like writers, the workers in the call centre industry worry about where these gains will go. If AI is used as another vice to squeeze increased production from workers — be it more calls or more TV episodes – for less pay, technology is once again a tool for degrading rather than improving work.
But it is possible to imagine an alternative. When AI enhances productivity, the gains must be shared. When AI leads to a reduction in jobs, there must be a just transition for the displaced workers. And the creative product of skilled workers must not be fed into the AI machine without permission and negotiation.
Unions have a long history of fighting and negotiating to ensure shared gains from introduction of new technology – or at least to mitigate excesses. Forty years ago, my job in a jet engine factory was improved by the introduction “numerically controlled” machinery. This technology meant that the job took much less of a toll on my body, and it improved accuracy. More important, we were confident that the change did not undermine job security because that had been negotiated with our union.
Just as automation and robotics upended manufacturing in the 1970s and 1980s, ChatGPT and other generative AI will shift how we work in the services industries. Unlike manufacturing during that period, the service sector, like call centres, is not highly unionized.
But the entertainment industry is. That is why writers are the first line of defence for workers regarding AI. Just as they give life to the characters they create; their strike is giving voice to the millions of workers who want wages with dignity and fair work in a digital era.
Christy Hoffman is the General Secretary of UNI GLOBAL UNION
Photo: Fabebk / Wikimedia Commons