Hollywood Writers Strike

Members of the The Writers Guild of America picket outside Fox Studios on Tuesday, in Los Angeles. Hollywood writers picketing to preserve pay and job security outside major studios and streamers braced for a long fight at the outset of a strike that immediately forced late-night shows into hiatus and numerous other productions on hold. Ashley Landis/Associated Press

Hollywood writers say ChatGPT can’t create better television than humans. Radiologists are confident humans will want them, not artificial intelligence alone, to review patients’ medical images. Pilots doubt people will ever feel comfortable with an algorithm flying a plane.

While artificial intelligence is rapidly improving and some economists predict the technology will put millions of workers out of jobs, labor unions are fighting against it. In bargaining sessions, AI is increasingly becoming a central sticking point, with organizers making the case that companies are shortsighted to replace knowledge workers with technology that can’t match human creativity and is riddled with errors and bias.

Some unions have recently made strides, such as Hollywood directors who struck a tentative agreement Saturday with motion picture studios and garnered promises that they “will not be replaced” by artificial intelligence. It was one of the first concessions organized labor has gotten regarding AI protections.

“Our industry is rapidly changing,” Lesli Linka Glatter, president of the Directors Guild of America, said in a statement Tuesday, after the guild’s board unanimously approved the tentative deal. “This agreement is what we need to adapt to those changes.”

But it will be a far messier and longer fight for other industries, according to economists. Union membership is in decline, corporations hold more sway in bargaining fights and labor unions must find messaging that appeals to cost-cutting leaders, these experts added. These tugs of war over technology offer an early glimpse into how effective organized labor will be in protecting workers.

Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said there’s no reason to trust that executives alone will make the right decisions regarding how AI might be used. “You need workers’ voices,” he said.


The writers’ guild wasn’t always worried about AI, said a member who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution. At a pre-strike meeting at the Hollywood Palladium theater in February, people laughed as AI was brought up in a Q&A session, the member said.

Five or six weeks later, the narrative had changed. News stories, public speeches, and protest signs were all about AI. Talking about the labor struggle in terms of automation made it more accessible to the public, the member said.

Months later, Writers Guild of America representatives said the studios would not even engage in AI during negotiations, and that’s how the union knew it would be a big deal. But it’s hard to determine how much of a present threat it is, the member said. “Maybe they are ready to replace us all,” the member said while adding that AI has become a unifying aspect of the strike.

The WGA pointed to a tweet saying it proposed to regulate AI and acknowledged it had meetings to discuss the bargaining agreement.

Labor unions are no strangers to combating technological advances. In the 1950s, autoworker unions fought to incorporate numerical computing machines into carmaking without replacing people on the assembly line. Warehouse workers have pushed to not be replaced by robots. Office workers sought protections after the rise of the internet and tools such as spreadsheets.

But generative artificial intelligence, which underlies products that create text, video, and audio, will prove challenging, industry experts said. AI can produce content that’s plausible enough to replace some kinds of work, namely entry-level writing, translation, and paralegal duties. Some companies are willing to replace humans, even though it may provide lower-quality work, the experts added.


This dynamic will require unions to adapt their messaging, Acemoglu said. They must not enter discussions saying they are against artificial intelligence completely. Rather, he said, they must stress to management that AI without human involvement can cost more in errors and result in second-rate work that will tarnish their brand.

Moreover, labor unions should come to the bargaining table asking for a role in deciding how the technology is used alongside workers, he said, and market it as a tool that’s used to augment creative work rather than replace it.

Hollywood can learn from other industries that have battled against artificial intelligence.

In the mid-2010s, AI researchers made breakthroughs in using neural networks to recognize and categorize images. By feeding the algorithms millions of images, the software developed its way of recognizing patterns. As it improved, AI technology became popular for facial recognition and a host of other applications.

Tech leaders immediately predicted that medical fields such as radiology and dermatology, which require doctors to learn subtle differences in X-ray images and blotches on their patients’ skin, would be disrupted by AI.

In 2017, the American College of Radiologists (ACR) started a Data Science Institute to study AI, educate its members on the technology’s uses and risks – and be a public voice for the doctors who tech leaders said were about to lose their jobs. The group doesn’t oppose AI, but it insists that doctors should always be at the center of determining how the technology is used.


Even though tech execs still cite radiology as a field that will be upended by AI, the majority of radiologists don’t use it, despite multiple tools being available, according to a 2021 study by the ACR institute.

Artificial Intelligence Google Microsoft

Zoubin Ghahramani, vice president of research at Google, speaks at the Google AI@ event in Nov. 2022, in New York. John Minchillo/Associated Press,  file

“Despite the tremendous hype around AI over the past five years, our survey found that less than 30% of ACR members are using AI in their clinical workflows,” the group wrote in a blog post announcing the study.

For years, pilots have also lobbied against airlines that have tried to replace them with automation. Since the 20th century, commercial flights have gone from having four or five flight crew members to now rarely having more than two. Better technology and automation have allowed airlines to cut navigators, radio operators, and third pilots, leaving only the pilot and the co-pilot.

But even as autopilot tech advances, human pilots have steadfastly resisted attempts to cut flight crews to one.

“Two experienced, well-trained and rested pilots on the flight deck is the most critical safety feature on any airliner,” Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, a union representing thousands of U.S. and Canadian pilots, said in 2022, responding to a wave of news coverage suggesting that robot pilots were on the horizon. “The association will continue to push back against those who seek to reduce – or eliminate – this vital safety feature.”

Flight industry regulators have also expressed concerns about how automation may make pilots more complacent. Overreliance on technology was a key factor in episodes where aircraft struck wires or the ground before getting to landing strips, according to a 2022 memo from the Federal Aviation Administration.


“The most insidious aspect of automation is its propensity to breed complacency and erode pilot confidence,” the FAA wrote in the memo. “The more time we spend on autopilot, the less time is available to maintain our hands-on skills.”

The strikes in Hollywood are instructive, Acemoglu added. The writers guild proposed regulations around how AI can be used to create source material or rewrite literary works, but motion picture executives have countered by establishing annual meetings to discuss the technology.

The directors guild has struck a tentative agreement with provisions confirming that “AI is not a person and that generative AI cannot replace the duties performed by members.”

While it’s encouraging that directors gained concessions from movie studios, Acemoglu said, it is more important to see how the studios will negotiate with writers, who have been on the picket lines for six weeks.

“There are so many fewer directors, so they have more power,” he added. “There are so many screenwriters . . . so they may not be powerful enough.”

As a seven-year member of the Writers Guild, Dylan Brody appreciates the union’s focus on artificial intelligence in its negotiations with motion picture executives.


Brody, 59, tested ChatGPT’s ability to create television episodes, recently asking it to create a family sitcom in which “a working mother is surprised to find she must support her husband when he loses his job and takes over the household duties.”

The results were lackluster. “There was not an actual laugh anywhere in it,” he said.

The writers guild must ensure that studios don’t replace its members with artificial intelligence because the technology cannot create work that’s similar in creativity and quality, he said. Brody also said the writers’ fight against AI has struck a chord with members on the picket line and is helping galvanize support.

“War against the robots – are you kidding me?” he said. “That’s something that sparks the imagination. That’s a rallying cry.”


Nitasha Tiku contributed to this report.

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