History Repeats Itself: AI Fueling Labor Dissent Is A Tale As Old As Time

by | Jul 27, 2023 | Artificial Intelligence, Bargaining/Negotiations, Industry, Labor Relations Ink, Strikes, Tech - Media

History Repeats Itself: AI Fueling Labor Dissent Is A Tale As Old As Time

Imagine being paid one day’s wages to train AI to do your job for as long as your workplace shall stand and with no further payment to you. It sounds preposterous, yes. Yet the fear that this possibility, which we will discuss in a moment, sparks might be one of the most relatable conundrums to surface from the entertainment industry. 

As our own Michael VanDervort recently wrote of the radio industry, the threat of AI taking over human jobs not only provides fertile ground for union infiltration but also sparks concerns within industries far and wide. Hollywood might seem distant from everyday concerns. Yet the ongoing historic double-strike of writers and actors is worth noting for how workers everywhere might respond to the AI-dominated future.

Naturally, unions are watching and waiting to capitalize upon this unease. Already, the Teamsters expressed “solidarity” for SAG-AFTRA and WGA, as have the IATSE and DGA, along with the UAW, CWA, SEIU, and the largest nurses union in the U.S. 

The results of this battle could portend how Big Labor tackles AI in the workplace for years to come. One can imagine, for example, the UAW following up on Big Three negotiations by taking up concerns of newly unionized professors who are grappling with increased workloads from AI-injected student paper submissions.

Let’s get back to the above twin strikes with two dilemmas worth noting:

One day of pay for an “eternity” of ownership? SAG-AFTRA claims that the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers proposed for performers “to be scanned” by studios, and that the resulting images (and a person’s likeness) could be used indefinitely and without further compensation within any future project. 

This is a plight that has been likened to a recent Netflix Black Mirror episode, “Joan is Awful,” which sees a woman’s likeness replicated for entertainment without her consent. That the issue is breaking grounds on TVs and movie screens may be sheer coincidence but no less relevant to widespread AI-related fears in the workplace.

History repeats itself with new residual payment structures: Technology taking over jobs is, sadly, nothing new. In the 1850s, the now-defunct International Typographical Union began representing the printing trade, which slowly saw workers fall by the wayside due to technological advances. The typographer of yesteryear compares to countless current occupations, and TV happens to be the most visible example at this moment.

One can thank the explosion of streaming services and so-called “cord cutting” by consumers for that visibility. The new residual payments, however, do not bode well for workers. Actors on Netflix’s long-running Orange Is The New Black series recently revealed the reality of digital streaming, which has all but eliminated acting residuals. Some popular Netflix actors have even had to hold onto their day jobs.

It’s no wonder, then, that unions are seizing onto these vulnerabilities. If we’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that every industry is vulnerable to union activity, and the challenge of AI will open more new doors for organizing. These effects will last long after the cinematic thrill of watching Oppenheimer and/or Barbie fades. 

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