AI And Blue-Collar Professions: How Hollywood’s Latest Contract Negotiations Could Prove Influential Elsewhere

by | May 8, 2024 | Artificial Intelligence, Bargaining/Negotiations, iatse, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Labor Relations Insight, Tech - Media, Unionized Company, Unions

We have discussed how what happens in California spreads elsewhere regarding Big Labor’s disruptions. Even indirectly, the 2023 Hollywood strikes – by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA – had far-reaching effects on several other industries. If you will also recall, a sticking point of those talks involved AI protections for screenwriters and actors, including an Oscar winner who was aghast to see himself “fighting a giant spider” in a superhero movie.

Thankfully, neither you nor I will ever have to worry about that latter concern. Yet those contract results provide a glimpse into how unions are seizing upon AI to convince workers that they can address their concerns more effectively than employers. Get ready for more industry crossover because the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) is now in contract renewal talks with studios and streaming services.

IATSE broadly represents TV and film set builders, electricians, drivers, audio-video techs, plumbers, caterers, animal trainers, and more. How AI will impact blue-collar workers – and their worries over being replaced by AI-based automation and programming code – is of significant concern.

What does the IATSE want regarding AI?

“For us, it’s really about erosion or potential erosion of our craft, through the technology. We don’t get extra pay for licensing or images, copyright and that sort of thing, although we do get residuals,” IATSE President Matthew Loeb explained to Variety ahead of negotiations. “AI challenges vary somewhat from craft to craft obviously, from a painter or a carpenter to a sound mixer to an editor. The nuances are different, but having said that, we’re looking for umbrella protection that covers everyone with a uniform negotiated protection.”

Loeb didn’t openly discuss many specifics, but this contract could eventually serve as a template for other unions representing blue-collar workers.

Where these talks stand: Studios reached tentative deals with all 13 West Coast IATSE locals. However, general negotiations involving the “thorniest” issues, including AI, will run until May 16, followed by bargaining for a dozen nationwide IATSE locals. Yes, it’s a complicated process that will cover 20,000+ workers. Also, the current contract expires on July 31.

A caveat: As with the SAG-AFTRA contract, provisions can only go so far in 2024. AI programs are also being developed much faster than U.S. copyright law can respond, so gray areas will remain no matter how much detail ends up in the contract. However, IATSE has lauded a proposed federal bill to “establish transparency with respect to copyrighted works used in building generative artificial intelligence (AI) systems.”

Considering how slowly legislative wheels turn, don’t look for that bill to have effects anytime soon. A few related notes:

  • IATSE isn’t the only TV and film-based union up for negotiations this year. Studios will hold June discussions with the Teamsters, and President Sean O’Brien will surely pull AI into the discussion, as well as an overall contraction of TV and film work after last year’s strikes.
  • This week, the Writers Guild of Canada and the Canadian Media Producers Association averted a strike after agreeing to a new three-year contract, which includes AI rules. That agreement hasn’t been made public yet.

What can employers do? Address those AI jitters head-on, and don’t let them fester. Transparency and open communication are vital to ensuring that workers won’t turn to unions on AI and many others. 


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