End of WGA strike marks triumph for screenwriters, but should not halt dialogue

By Sophie Foster

Opinion Editor

After nearly five months of picketing, the Writers Guild of America is no longer on strike after the organization’s leaders reached an agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers on Sept. 27 and the writers themselves moved to ratify the contract on Oct. 10.

According to AP News, the contracts were not released to the writers beyond their union leaders until after the board voted to pass the agreement, which includes responses to issues of compensation, employment length, staff size, and artificial intelligence use.

The final agreement, though not exactly what the writers initially called for, turned up significant wins in the fight for creative power in the face of studios’ unethical workplace expectations.

According to AP News, a compromise was reached in the discussion of pay and residual earning increases. While writers campaigned for a 5% or 6% raise, the studios called for a range of 2% to 4%. The deal landed on 3.5% to 5%. Additionally, residual payments and bonuses based on show popularity on streaming services were negotiated so that writers aiding in the creation of high-viewer-traction properties will be more adequately paid for their contributions.

Other changes include the requirement for shows with projected 13 episode minimums hire at least six writers, and shows not yet ordered to series are required to have at least three staff writers, a number that was negotiated down from the WGA’s initial request of six. Shows in initial development stages must now employ staffs for a minimum of 10 weeks, and all shows that go to air must employ their staffs for three weeks per episode aired.

An agreement was also reached in the dialogue regarding the use of artificial intelligence, which has been a highly contentious conversation in creative spaces as the industry continues to evolve at a rapid pace.

According to AP News, “[u]nder the contract, raw, AI-generated storylines will not be regarded as ‘literary material’ — a term in their contracts for scripts and other story forms a screenwriter produces. This means they won’t be competing with computers for screen credits. Nor will AI-generated stories be considered “source” material, their contractual language for the novels, video games or other works that writers may adapt into scripts.”

The deal extends three years, and is set to expire on May 1, 2026.

This conclusion of the strike led to the near-immediate return of late-night talk shows. Scripted television shows, however, will not be able to return until the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists reach the end of their own strikes, which have been underway since July without much luck in negotiations. According to Vox, SAG-AFTRA and AMPTP began talks on Oct. 2, but those talks were suspended on Oct. 11 amid a stalemate between the two.

AMPTP released a statement on Oct 11 which claimed that “the gap between the AMPTP and SAG-AFTRA is too great, and conversations are no longer moving us in a productive direction,” calling SAG-AFTRA’s requests an “untenable economic burden.”

However, SAG-AFTRA countered this statement on Oct. 12, revealing their perspective that AMPTP “presented an offer that was, shockingly, worth less than they proposed before the strike began” and that they had “misrepresented to the press the cost of the…proposal — overstating it by 60%.”

According to Variety, on both writing and acting fronts, “[t]he situation demands both urgent action and long-term study because the industry dynamics that spurred the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes are likely to persist in the near term.”

Both unions’ negotiations, from the concluded WGA endeavor to the enduring SAG-AFTRA work, were forced to transpire under highly pressurized conditions. Moving forward and considering that pressure, labor and management teams should perhaps consider the creation of a forum for regular communication, the airing of grievances, and the evaluation of what went awry in this overlong cycle of contract negotiations, according to Variety.

The reality is this: neither strike should have lasted several months. WGA should not have had to make concessions that predominantly impact the most vulnerable, low-income writers, such as allowing the raise proportion for those writers to be talked down from 5% to 3.5%. This should not have been the second-longest strike in their history. SAG-AFTRA should not still need to be on strike at all, nor should they be asked to accept morally reprehensible terms.

Nonetheless, that moral reprehensibility dominates the negotiations. In part, this is because technology introduced heightened complications to creative work, thus dividing interests.

According to screenwriter and co-chair of the 2017 WGA contract negotiation Billy Ray for Variety, the AMPTP should, realistically, not persist in being one entity; rather, it needs to divide into two independent bodies.

“It should be the legacy [studio] companies as one bargaining unit, and then the tech companies as another,” Ray said. “They could make separate deals. They have separate needs.”

This is an element of the ongoing dialogue about the role of technology in creative fields, and what, exactly, artificial intelligence can effectively achieve, and what of those achievements is even ethical.

A major sticking point in the current actors’ union negotiations is the AMPTP’s proposal demanding consent for use of actors’ digital replicas in cinematic universes and franchise projects, according to Vox.

Originally, AMPTP “proposed that…background actors should be able to be scanned, get paid for one day’s pay, and their company should own that scan, their image, their likeness and to be able to use it for the rest of eternity in any project they want with no consent and no compensation,” National Executive Director and Chief Negotiator of SAG-AFTRA Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said.

These strikes exist at a major intersection between several overlapping industries, but we are seeing it impact film and television most immediately.

According to screenwriter Kylie Brakeman for NPR, “film and TV [are] being hijacked by tech overlords who want to turn film and TV into…content sludge that we slurp up…A robot cannot write for us. I think…binding humans to art…is very important. And I think that that’s a fundamental thing about art that cannot be taken away.”

Technological advancements and the ethics of certain uses of artificial intelligence underline worker-employer conflict in most industries today. Professors worry students may use ChatGPT for writing assignments, fast food restaurants replace cashiers with ordering machines, and news outlets use artificial intelligence to assemble baseline reportage — and those are just a few examples.

WGA and SAG-AFTRA propelled this issue to national recognition. The time is now to establish boundaries around our artificial intelligence uses and abuses — especially in creative industries dependent on human connectivity.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Photo Caption: WGA spent almost five months on strike for better pay and improved conditions.

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