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Labor Pains

Did the Actors’ Union Really Win?

The end of “hot labor summer” looked like a victory for SAG-AFTRA. But some of its members aren’t so sure.

SAG-AFTRA members and supporters chant outside Paramount Studios on day 118 of their strike against the Hollywood studios on November 8, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Mario Tama/Getty Images
SAG-AFTRA members and supporters chant outside Paramount Studios on day 118 of their strike against the Hollywood studios on November 8, in Los Angeles.

When Kate Bond, a Los Angeles-based actress who served as a strike captain alongside fellow members of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television, first learned that her union’s national board had made a tentative agreement with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, or AMPTP, after four months on strike, she was relieved. It had been a long year for the entertainment industry, which had been brought to a standstill by near-simultaneous strikes by both the actors’ union and the Writers Guild of America.

“I’ve been on strike for a while,” she said. “So I was pretty excited that it was ending.”

In bars across Los Angeles and beyond, strike captains and other members planned some Friday night celebrations. But Bond quickly found reason to be discontented. At the first bar she dropped by, a member of the negotiating committee told her that the end of the strike wasn’t necessarily the victory she’d hoped it would be. “We didn’t feel like you guys could hold out any longer,” she said. To Bond, this felt like an admission that SAG-AFTRA had given up on achieving their demands for fair compensation, better residuals—and perhaps most importantly, protection from artificial intelligence.

“I just went ahead and went home,” she said. “I was like … this isn’t gonna be good.”

Bond wasn’t alone in her dissatisfaction with the outcome of the contract, which membership voted to ratify on December 5, effective from November 2023 through June 2026. Though it received a significant majority of “yes” votes, 22 percent of members voted against the deal, with the majority of the sprawling 160,000-strong membership not voting at all.

“We were on strike for four months. We gave our leaders all the leverage they needed to win real gains,” Bond said. “Unfortunately, they seem to have settled for a deal that sounds good in a press release but that doesn’t deliver for our members.”

With 38 percent of its membership voting, some 60,000 cast their ballots in favor of the deal, so Bond’s viewpoint is in the minority—though a vocal and non-insignificant one.

“It sounds like there were so many people who were ‘vote no,’ but it was just the loudness of social media,” said Nicole Cyrille, a nonvoting member of the Negotiating Committee and chair of the Los Angeles Performers with Disabilities Committee. “There’s so many amazing things that came out of this contract that get lost,” she said.

Citing internal SAG-AFTRA data, Cyrille said turnout substantially exceeded that for recent previous contract votes and that the proportion of those voting against was comparable to previous instances. Among SAG-AFTRA’s massive, heterogeneous membership—which includes not only actors but singers, dancers, puppeteers, stunt people, and more, only 14 percent meet the threshold to qualify for insurance. Nearly three times that number voted.

Inequities in Hollywood run deep, and though the new contract won’t solve all the members’ problems, there were important gains: They won a stipulation closing loopholes around sneaky advance pay schedules; they will get more time to submit self-tape auditions, thus ensuring their right to a weekend; they will receive hair and makeup consultations to better avoid ethnic biases; dancers will take home better rehearsal pay and stunt actors will get higher residuals; and the contract says producers must make their “best efforts” to make intimacy coordinators available on set. Still, most of those issues had been agreed upon prior to the strike, which primarily surrounded issues of compensation and, particularly, protections from A.I.

Of course, members didn’t emerge empty-handed. For one, the new contract provides boosts to compensation. This includes “significant” minimum wage increases for principal and background actors, higher residual payments for streaming series, streaming bonuses for popular shows, and substantially increased contributions to insurance and pension plans. In total, this amounts to some $1 billion in gains.

The negotiators were able to “bring those residual structures up, to help us actors pay rent in our one-bedroom apartments,” said Cyrille. (Bond, for her part, pointed out that the residual gains were not sufficient and that they were unchanged from AMPTP’s final offer before the strike.)

The biggest sticking point remains the role of A.I. technology, which has exploded in recent years, bringing with it existential concerns about how it could upend creative industries. Striking writers and actors fear that without regulation and limitations, A.I. could eventually—or even soon—replace them. Greedy studios will have no incentive to continue hiring actors or writers (or other crew, for that matter) if they can simply create “synthetic” characters digitally and not pay anyone.

There is an important distinction in how the SAG-AFTRA memorandum of understanding defines A.I. It refers to “digital replicas,” which are based on real humans, who must give consent for their likenesses to be used per specific project. These digital doubles are made via visual effects and require human participation, explained Melissa Medína, a voice actor based in Minneapolis who previously worked in tech and has experience with A.I. technology.

“Consent and compensation is huge,” said Cyrille. In addition to giving consent to be “scanned” for a digital replica, actors must be remunerated for their use at their regular day rates.

However, as Satu Runa, a Los Angeles–based actor and director noted, some might feel pressured to give consent if not doing so could mean losing out on a part. Producers “can make it a condition of employment,” said Runa. “In the moment, [many actors are] just going to say ‘yes’ because there’s such a power imbalance.”

But as Cyrille stressed, consent must be given separately for each film or episode of television, unless actors are given a “reasonably specific” future use case. If an actor feels that’s been violated, they can file a grievance with the union.

“Reasonably specific” is “a term people got upset with,” Cyrille said. “If you don’t understand legal terms and contract language, some of it could be really confusing. But ‘reasonably specific’ is a term that holds up in a court of law.”

Adding another layer to this is the fact that digital likenesses could very well be amalgamations of different features from various actors, making them difficult to keep track of, especially for actors who aren’t recognizable. “They amalgamate or mash together people’s faces to create new ones,” said Medína. “The people who are most displaced and most affected are the people who don’t have those recognizable features.” How then, she asked, could the union make a claim against an A.I. company if the features are no longer discernible?

In the era of digital likenesses, Runa fears that the union won’t be able to keep up with the volume of grievances it could receive. “It’s not going to be one case here and there, it’s going to be very widespread. It’s going to be difficult for SAG to take that on,” she said. “It’s just gonna happen to so many performers.”

Additionally, actors are limited to arbitration and monetary damages—not necessarily for their likeness to be removed from the database where they are stored or tracked, if it is even technologically possible to do so. And there are a number of other exemptions. For example, Schedule F actors, who make over $80,000 per feature, are not entitled to additional pay if they are used to create a digital replica.

If this weren’t enough, generative A.I. can create “synthetic performers” who aren’t based on any one person—which is wholly new territory for the industry. With nothing about the subject codified in any previous contracts, “we set up protections for A.I. where they never existed before,” said Cyrille.

It may be true that the contract defines generative A.I. for the first time, but Medína said that stipulations around it fall short. “We have a couple of protections around our likeness in the VFX [visual effects] space, which is great and better than we had before, but that doesn’t address generative A.I. at all,” they noted.

Medína and other critics sounding an alarm about the contract feel that even working with generative A.I. is a slippery slope and that the union should have taken a firm stand against its use. But as an FAQ on SAG’s website states: “Although there are members who took the concept of banning A.I. to the picket lines, it was our goal to put guardrails around A.I., not wholly ban it. Even if we wanted to ban all A.I., Federal Labor Law constrains what we can bargain, limiting it to mandatory subjects of bargaining—those that affect wages, hours and working conditions.”

Given its limitations, it said, “many industry experts who have reviewed the language of the deal have been impressed that we were able to achieve the broad protections we did.”

While Cyrille said she shares members’ concerns about technology moving quickly, she feels “very comfortable” with the protections in the deal. But it’s hard to say where generative A.I. technology will be in two and a half years when the contract is next set to be renegotiated.

“SAG dismissing the technology is misguided and shows a fundamental misunderstanding of how quickly A.I. improves,” said Medína. “That’s not protection. That’s a hope and a prayer.”

The Writers Guild of America contract, signed in October after 148 days on strike, has much stronger A.I. protections. It states outright that A.I. is not a writer and that companies cannot require writers to use it. In contrast with the SAG-AFTRA ratification vote, more than three-quarters of WGA membership voted on their deal, with 99 percent in favor. It is difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between the WGA deal and the SAG deal, because SAG-AFTRA is over 13 times the size of the WGA (since SAG and AFTRA merged in 2012) and encompasses a broader cross-section of the industry. But the WGA has historically been a stronger and more assertive union. It last went on strike in 2007, while the actors’ union hasn’t gone on strike since 1980.

“Strong unions get high voter turnout,” said Bond. “Our leadership’s failure to engage the membership—both rank-and-file members and famous A-listers—is something we need to prioritize working on as we move forward. It was a problem during the strike, and it was a problem again during ratification.”

But the fact that SAG-AFTRA voted to strike at all, and the gains it made, showed that its leadership and members are becoming more unified and engaged in making changes in their industry, amid a wave of labor organizing across the country. The “unity and solidarity” built on the picket lines alongside the WGA and other unions “will continue to evolve,” said Cyrille. “Because what [the AMPTP] saw in us was strength in power,” she said.

Even with the bottom line of a new contract dotted and signed, critics and supporters of the deal alike will need to continue to fight for A.I. protections as A.I. becomes a real, and not just a hypothetical, problem. “The best thing we can do now is educate aspiring and working performers on how to protect themselves from the misuse of their likeness,” said Runa.

Still, it’s an issue that goes far beyond Hollywood—and the contract’s stipulations could set the tone for A.I.’s encroachment in other industries when it comes to questions of data oversight, protections, and management. In October, President Biden signed an executive order seeking to establish “new standards for AI safety and security,” but more protective legislation is necessary. This will be a challenge: Legislation, after all, moves much more slowly than technology, especially when Big Tech giants wield so much power over the government. In many ways, it feels like an uphill—or even impossible—battle.

But Runa stressed the importance of not just throwing in the towel. “We cannot give in to the inhumane practices of Big Tech. We—not just actors, but everyone—must fight for strict regulation to stave off the massive biometric data and digital identity theft that’s coming our way,” she said. “The unpeopled future that Big Tech is currently engineering only happens if we don’t resist.”