The WGA contract could be a blueprint for workers fighting for AI rules

The agreement is likely the first battle in a long struggle, creative labor leaders say.
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Francis Scialabba

· 5 min read

After five months of stopped work, days spent picketing outside studios, and countless pithy sign quips—e.g., “Alexa will not replace us”—the Writers Guild of America (WGA) secured a contract that will include historic provisions around how AI can be used in writers’ rooms across Hollywood.

But for other creative and writing-centric professions in flux amid a new wave of language- and image-generating models, the battle is only beginning. Some experts and labor leaders think that the rules hammered out by the WGA could serve as a blueprint for what’s expected to be a lengthy struggle over how this technology is implemented.

“The Writers Guild contract helps level up an area that previously no one really has dealt with in a union contract,” NewsGuild president Jon Schleuss told Tech Brew. “It’s a really good first step in what’s probably going to be a decade-long battle to protect creative individuals from having their talent being misused or replaced by generative AI.”

The contract comes as an AI arms race in Silicon Valley has thrust myriad industries onto the front lines over the new technology. From screen and voice actors involved in the ongoing SAG-AFTRA strike to fashion models and authors, creative professionals have concerns about how AI could exploit their existing bodies of work or be used to automate parts of their jobs.

Adam Seth Litwin, an associate professor of industrial and labor relations at Cornell University, said the WGA contract could help establish the playing field around AI and set a precedent that workers and their representatives should be involved in these discussions.

“The writers’ deal shows that with the right strategy, unions can secure a voice in how new technologies like AI are implemented in the workplace,” Litwin told Tech Brew via email. “Rather than outright resisting technological changes, unions should focus on shaping its deployment and ensuring workers share in the benefits.”

What the WGA won

While far from the only point of conflict between writers and studios, AI was certainly one of the most novel. The terms of the tentative agreement mandate that AI cannot be credited as a writer, AI-generated writing cannot be considered source material, and writers must be able to choose whether to use AI software.

Anton Korinek, a professor of economics focusing on AI at the University of Virginia, said it still may be too early to understand the impact generative AI could have on different business models or how applicable rules like these could be across other industries. He also stressed that the strike began near the beginning of the AI race, which may have meant both parties had less time to understand how AI will actually work in practice.

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“Since they have been on strike for so long, they haven’t really had a chance yet to evaluate how these tools can best be incorporated into their workflow—which takes time and experimentation,” Korinek said in an email.

Battles over in AI in the news business

But in industries where AI is actively being implemented in business models, unions are already writing the playbook. In newsrooms represented by the NewsGuild, which include the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Wall Street Journal, Schleuss said members are comparing notes on what approaches work best and then looking to establish standards.

“If there’s really good language that’s agreed on in a newsroom, then we replicate it and try to make sure that folks in another newsroom know about it and then try to push for something similar,” Schleuss said.

The goal is simple: “Let’s come up with the standard, which is: We’re not going to see replacement of journalists, that workers can actually use AI if they like but they won’t be required to, and that we’ve got clear ethical guidelines around how it’s gonna be used,” Schleuss said.

Credit where due

At a Federal Trade Commission-hosted gathering of labor leaders and artists in creative fields this week, many attendees emphasized that they aren’t against technology in principle. The sticking points are around how AI trains on their work without credit or compensation and then uses that knowledge to replace them with lesser products, Jen Jacobsen, executive director of the Artists Rights Alliance, said in one representative testimony.

“Unfortunately, in today’s reckless, careless rush to launch new generative AI products, we are seeing what is euphemistically referred to as AI training or learning, but which is in fact illegal copying of artistic works on a massive scale without consent or compensation,” Jacobsen said at the virtual event.

Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of the fashion workers group Model Alliance, said segments of the creative economy must come together to coordinate and challenge these threats.

“We believe now is a critical time for solidarity between workers across creative fields who contribute heavily to our culture and economy,” Ziff said. “We’re not anti-tech; we’re anti-exploitation.”

Keep up with the innovative tech transforming business

Tech Brew keeps business leaders up-to-date on the latest innovations, automation advances, policy shifts, and more, so they can make informed decisions about tech.