By Freedom Road Socialist Organization Labor Commission
We in Freedom Road Socialist Organization stand with the 11,500 workers of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the 65,000 members of the Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) who are striking for not only higher wages and benefits but also against the threat posed by automation.
Members of The Screen Actors Guild – American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), actors and other performance workers, have been on strike since July 14 after negotiations with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) broke down.
Writers Guild of America members have been on strike after negotiations with the AMPTP fell apart on May 2. The simultaneous strikes have dealt a gut punch to Hollywood and the film industry, shutting down every major television and film production in the country and have postponed the Emmys that were scheduled to take place in September.
The last time that the WGA went on strike was from November 5, 2007 to February 12, 2008 and it ended in a victory for the writers. For SAG members, this is the first strike since 1980 and the first time that the two unions have been on strike together since 1960. All three past strikes were won by the unions and resulted in major gains for the members, from better pensions to residual pay for home media like DVD and VHS tapes.
This time workers are demanding higher pay and fair compensation from streaming services, which has changed the way actors and writers are paid for residuals. They are also demanding protections against artificial intelligence (AI). In its contract proposal, the AMPTP said it wants to use AI to make “digital replicas” of actors based on detailed body scans. Actors’ voices, faces and bodies could be changed or recreated without their consent or compensation. For writers, AI would be used to write scripts based on various topics and prompts with minimal human input. Many SAG-AFTRA and WGA members worry that AI is an existential threat to their profession.
In a capitalist economy, capitalists replace workers with machines to boost profit in the short term by cutting labor costs and making production more efficient. While AI technology usually has a high initial and maintenance costs, it’s worth it for capitalists to avoid paying workers higher wages and benefits, and it eliminates the need to address worker demands or potential strikes. The threat of automation is not new to the working class; it first emerged in the industrial revolution, when corporations began building factories and replacing laborers with machines. Since then, the threat of being replaced by a machine has been used as a crude form of propaganda to convince workers in key industries that they can’t have higher wages or better working conditions.
In Karl Marx’s Capital Volume 1, he wrote: “…machinery not only acts as a competitor who gets the better of the workman, and is constantly on the point of making him superfluous. It is also a power inimical to him, and as such capital proclaims it from the roof tops and as such makes use of it. It is the most powerful weapon for repressing strikes, those periodical revolts of the working-class against the autocracy of capital.”
Today, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) threaten jobs across industries and across different sections of the working class. Self-checkout stations replace cashiers, autonomous driving trucks replace truck drivers, software programs replace office workers, and now “digital replicas” and AI-generated scripts are threatening to replace actors and screenwriters.
The SAG-AFTRA and WGA strikes represent one of the largest organized labor efforts against automation and artificial intelligence, and the workers are unwilling to settle until the AMPTP agrees to their demands.
Many of us in Freedom Road Socialist Organization are trade unionists. We have a long history of leading shop floor struggles, taking on the boss, and leading strikes. Recently, the Teamsters reached a tentative agreement with United Parcel Service. Automation and use of technology is an important issue that threatens workers at UPS. The tentative agreement addressed some of these issues, as well as many others resulting in many big wins. This only happened because the workers took to action – with pickets, rallies and a credible strike threat. Surely, there is much to gain with this historic strike in Hollywood. We in the FRSO stand with SAG-AFTRA and the WGA and raise our fists in solidarity. Dare to struggle, dare to win!