Film and TV studios could replace striking writers with artificial intelligence bots, and there’s not much labor unions could do to stop it without language in a collective bargaining agreement.
Federal labor law gives employers broad authority to introduce new technology—whether it be autonomous forklifts or Chat GPT-like programs that mimic human writing—without engaging in collective bargaining, labor attorneys and academics say.
AI technology is years away from posing an actual threat to screen writers’ jobs. But the lack of legal bargaining requirements explains why the Writers Guild of America—which went on strike May 2 for the first time in 15 years—is adamant about adding limits to studios’ use of artificial intelligence in its next agreement.
Anticipatory language in a collective bargaining agreement may be the only way to stop the machines from eventually taking over, which speaks to the broader struggle unions face in regulating technology, including streaming services that have upended the economics of the industry.
The Writers Guild has proposed in negotiations strict limits on AI from “writing or rewriting” literary material and prohibiting studios from using material produced by union writers to train AI bots. The studios rejected the proposals, offering instead to meet once a year to discuss new technology, the union said in a bargaining update last week.
“This is a problem that has been going on forever,” said Jeffrey Hirsch, a labor law professor at the University of North Carolina. “Unionized employees are going to try to stave off the impact of new technology as much as they can. There’s a limit to how much they can do that.”
The Writers Guild didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents Hollywood’s studios, declined to comment on negotiations over AI.
Decisions With Business
Not all bargainable subjects are created equal under the National Labor Relations Act. Businesses are required to negotiate over core conditions of employment—pay and benefits, for example.
In many other instances, management can unilaterally make changes but is still required to bargain over the effect on the workers. For example, a manufacturing plant may not have to get a union’s permission to add robots to its assembly line, but it would have to bargain over scheduling changes and potentially severance benefits for laid-off workers.
The federal labor board has long put technological changes in the latter category, requiring employers only to bargain over the effects of the change on workers, legal observers said. That would likely hold true with AI, since managers have an inherent right to organize their business however they see fit, said Sharon Block, director of Harvard Law School’s labor center.
It’s as if a cookware company decided, “We don’t want to be in the business of making pots anymore, we want to be in the business of making pans,” said Catherine Creighton, director of the Cornell University School of Labor and Industrial Relations Buffalo Co-Lab. “Under the law, you can’t tell us that we have to make pots. We can decide whether we want to make pots or pans.”
Crystal Ball Bargaining
That leaves unions with one basic option: bargain over technology that may not yet exist.
More and more unions are bargaining for advanced notice of new technology from employers, helping them understand in real time whether it will displace workers or change the environment, said Lisa Kresge, a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley who studies tech clauses in union contracts.
“In many cases, unions have bargained to participate in the whole process of decision making around new technology,” she said. “In some cases, the actual decision-making process of which vendor to select.”
Such contract clauses aren’t exclusive to job-replacing technology, but also quality of life in the workplace. There’s been an uptick in unions seeking limits on surveillance and data collection, Kresge said.
The Communications Workers of America has successfully negotiated clauses that require employee monitoring data to be used only for training and development, not discipline, she said. Professional sports unions have bargained over the use of data from wearable devices to track players’ performance. And the United Auto Workers has been grappling with job losses to automation—part of the Detroit automakers’ strategy to compete with foreign companies—for decades.
The International Longshore and Warehouse Union has also been locked in a contract dispute for months over automation at West Coast port terminals, among other issues.
Hollywood won’t be able rely entirely on AI script writers anytime soon, because the technology just isn’t there, labor lawyers said. A more plausible scenario would involve human writers editing AI-generated drafts or using bots as assistants, which could translate to fewer jobs, or jobs with different responsibilities.
There’s another unsettling element about AI writing bots that has caught unions’ attention. Unlike other forms of automation, artificial writing bots learn from human-created work—meaning writers’ old scripts could be used to replace them.
The union isn’t waiting for that to happen.
“The ultimate pressure is what the writers are doing now, which is striking,” Hirsch said.
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