Urban Wire The Hollywood Strikes Showed How Unions Support Workers’ Rights as Technology Advances
Deborah Kobes
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The Oscars are this weekend, and Hollywood, critics, and viewers are gearing up to celebrate the film industry’s greatest achievements in 2023. But last year, the most dramatic and powerful performances in Hollywood were the strikes by the entertainment unions WGA and SAG-AFTRA (the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists).

Evidence shows that unions are a critical tool for increasing wages and job satisfaction, with even nonunion workers reaping the benefits. During the Hollywood strikes, WGA and SAG-AFTRA fought for issues including minimum wages, health care, and pension funding that are common to many collective bargaining negotiations across industries. They also did something new: advocating for workers’ rights as artificial intelligence (AI) advances.

The rise of AI has numerous implications for our economy, including for workers’ roles. My Urban colleagues have examined how to prepare workers with AI-relevant skills and to use lessons learned from globalization to support workers who have been displaced by AI. However, generative AI, which creates new content based on data used to train the AI, forces us to reconsider workers’ contributions on the job and how they should be compensated. As researchers, policymakers, and advocates seek to answer these questions, they can look to recent and historical instances where collective bargaining helped workers navigate technological shifts in their industries.

AI is affecting how we measure workers’ contributions

We typically think of a worker’s value in terms of hourly wages and related benefits, but AI is changing that. In their contracts, SAG-AFTRA negotiated for consent and compensation for digital replicas of actors’ likenesses and set some guidelines around synthetic performers, and WGA ensured that only human writers will be credited as authors. Though we don’t know what impact these contract clauses will have, they set a precedent for future bargaining to assume that human workers’ contributions are necessary to creating goods and services. They affirm that humans bring several advantages over AI, including creativity, contextual thinking, and emotional intelligence, to many industries.

These contract clauses reveal a fundamentally different type of understanding of what a worker contributes to an employer, because they recognize that workers add value beyond the amount of time spent on a task. As my colleague Kate Bahn frames it, “Workers should be paid equal to the value… that they create,” even if technology changes the way that workers generate that value.

The Hollywood strikes build on a history of collective bargaining for workers’ rights when new technologies arise

The Hollywood strikes were not the first time that unions recognized the need to protect workers from major technological advances that would transform their industries. The 833-day American Federation of Musicians strike that launched in 1942 dwarfed the recent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, which were 148 and 118 days, respectively. The strike emerged in response to the rise of recording technology in the 1920s and 1930s that reshaped the music industry from one in which musicians earned a living performing live music. The rise of records meant record labels could make money over and over for labor that the musician only put in once—a threat that could’ve put many musicians out of work.

Through the strike, the American Federation of Musicians won residual payments distributed through a union fund, marking the first time a union compelled an industry to support workers displaced by technology in the US. This success became the basis for residuals across creative industries, with Ronald Reagan securing residuals for actors during his time as Screen Actors Guild president about 15 years later. Residuals remain a central part of music, film, and television union negotiations, including the 2023 Hollywood strikes, as the technological landscape evolves and digital streaming continues becoming more popular.

Over the past decade, unions have also been addressing worker rights in the face of new technology in a different industry: academia. Faculty typically own the intellectual property for the courses and related materials they create of their own initiative. However, the economic structures of massive open online courses (MOOCs) that were popularized in 2012 have challenged that norm. MOOC providers generally partner with higher education institutions to license courses, and in turn, those colleges ask faculty members to waive their ownership rights to be able to deliver the courses. When the technology emerged, not only were most faculty fearful of MOOCs spreading, but only 30 percent believed they were fairly compensated for their content—a stark contrast to the 60 percent of college administrators who believed that compensation was fair.

Several educators’ unions have fought for intellectual property rights for MOOCs to be protected and compensated the same way other content is, because the courses can be used to adjust faculty workload expectations and their spread devalues faculty teaching. These efforts leverage unions’ successes in securing more intellectual property rights for their faculty than faculty have secured at institutions without unions.

How unions can protect workers as technology changes

Generative AI and other technologies force us to reevaluate the nature and value of musicians’, actors’, writers’, and academics’ work. Though arts and culture only represent 4.4 percent of the national economy, creativity also propels innovation in product design and manufacturing, teaching, medical advances, and countless other economic drivers across all industries. That means lessons from collective bargaining on how best to position creative workers in the face of major technological advances, including generative AI, could be adapted and applied across the labor market.

Unions are increasingly focused on the digital workplace and risks to workers’ rights and job quality beyond compensation, including data security and surveillance. Involving unions in the adoption of and comprehensive planning around using AI and other emerging technologies could help more workers share in the benefits of technological advances. Similarly, as the Federal Trade Commission and other federal agencies determine how to ensure workers are protected from and fairly treated by AI, consistent with Biden’s executive order, they have an opportunity to consider how to most effectively compensate workers for their contributions.

Though AI is still relatively new and we can still influence its impact on the workforce, researchers should seek to establish more evidence about whether and how collective bargaining can tell a labor story worth celebrating as much as an Oscar.

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Research Areas Workforce Artificial intelligence
Tags Arts and culture Job markets and labor force Labor force Technology, trade, and automation Wages and nonwage compensation Worker voice, representation, and power Workplace and industry studies
Policy Centers Center on Labor, Human Services, and Population
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