Labor calls out Artificial Intelligence for its threat to jobs
SAG-AFTRA members won some important protections against AI in their recent historic strike. | Chris Pizzello/AP

WASHINGTON —Is artificial intelligence a job threat?

Before answering that question, it’s wise to define what artificial intelligence is. That’s where social media, movie and TV studios, and streaming videos come into the picture.

In their quest to cut costs, heads of those firms are eager to implement AI. That’s because it would let them employ—and pay—a performer for one day’s work, and that’s all they’d need.

By computerizing the worker’s image, voice, mannerisms, and figure, the moguls could artificially recreate the performer forever, without paying the worker one more cent.

No residuals, no royalties from when your film or video is rerun. No extra pay for extra film and stage sessions. And no pay for their mandate to film yourself for auditions.

One SAG-AFTRA member, marching on a picket line, summed up the situation in a word: Workers would be replaced by “zombies.”

No wonder SAG-AFTRA concluded it’s a threat.

Hang-ups over AI’s potentially hugely negative impact on movie, TV, Netflix, streaming video, and Broadway performers were a big issue in the union’s 118-day strike against TV and movie studios, Broadway theaters, streaming video firms, and their ilk. The issue produced a final delay in bargaining the weekend before the two sides agreed on a three-year tentative agreement.

AI was the last remaining key issue for SAG-AFTRA. It was also an issue, to a lesser extent, in the Writers Guild of America’s concurrent strikes against the same bosses. WGA’s fear: AI copying words of their scripts, over and over and over again, again without compensation.

“Both unions feared the ways in which their work could be turned against them,” Variety explained. “Their scripts or performances could be fed into an AI training database and used to create ‘new’ work. For actors, the result might be a synthetic performer who bears no resemblance to a living person, but was nevertheless built out of pieces of real performances.”

AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond more direct

Artificial intelligence means “performers are being asked to sign away the rights to their own likeness as a condition of employment so the studios can add to their profits by digitally creating new content without them,” he said earlier this year. “Writers not writing. Actors not acting.”

SAG-AFTRA won safeguards against AI. The Writers won weaker language, trade papers reported, and the battles between them and the bosses will continue in court, and in future talks.

“The deal provides meaningful protections around the use of artificial intelligence, including informed consent and compensation for the creation and use of digital replicas of our members, living and deceased, whether created on set or licensed for use,” SAG-AFTRA said in a summary.

SAG-AFTRA got “protection against the use of recognizable physical features in synthetic performances, plus a consent requirement for the use of dead actors’ images,” Variety elaborated. One federal judge has already ruled studios cannot copyright individual performers’ likenesses, voices, and features.

AFL-CIO is leery 

Unveiling the labor federation’s Executive Paywatch study earlier this year, Redmond said artificial intelligence has the potential to wipe out 300 million jobs worldwide, nearly half of them in the U.S. while shoveling tons of cash into corporate CEOs’ pockets.

After all, the data showed, that the top user of AI is Hertz Rent-A-Car. Remember how you used to go to a Hertz office and speak to a real person about the make and model of the car you wanted? Not anymore. Now it’s all done by an artificial computer-generated response via a video kiosk.

“If left unchecked, AI can increase economic inequality and undermine job security,” Redmond warned. “We are already seeing AI algorithms being used to determine who is qualified for a job, who is worthy enough for additional medical care, and who can afford to buy a home and where. In some industries, AI is making HR decisions about hiring, scheduling, task assignment, performance reviews, and even terminations.”

That means the computer can fire you. The top protection against such a fate, Redmond said, is safeguards negotiated into union contracts. He urged unions to demand of bosses in their next rounds of bargaining what the bosses’ AI intentions are, and then bargain for guardrails.

Federation President Liz Shuler also has the AFL-CIO’s new think tank, the Technology Institute, headed by Amanda Ballantyne, delving into the issue. Ballantyne and Unite HERE President D Taylor cited examples of “good” and “bad” AI impact in interviews with Politico early in the year.

“There’s technology that improves work for working people, and then there’s technology that automates and de-skills, and if there’s no plan to help workers navigate that then we have job loss and inequity,” Ballantyne said.

Taylor said many of the hotels his members toil at use AI to automate check-in and check-out processes. That throws off the schedules and workloads of other workers, such as room cleaners.

The Biden administration believes AI can be a force for good, as long as it includes curbs to protect workers from having their jobs wiped out.

Biden says it must be regulated and fenced in to prevent corporate behemoths—like the studios—from using it to completely replace workers without their consent, or pay them pennies for their toil. He issued an extensive executive order in late October to try to create such controls.

Earlier this year, the president, represented by top staffers, convened union officials, including Teachers President Randi Weingarten and IATSE Secretary-Treasurer James Wood, to discuss AI.

Wood presented the union’s principles for the use of AI in the entertainment industry to that session. Though Wood did not say so, in the wake of the SAG-AFTRA strike, AI may well be a key issue in his union’s industry-wide bargaining next year.

“We must ensure entertainment workers are fairly compensated when their work is used to train, develop or generate new works by AI systems,” Wood warned. “We must improve transparency of the use of AI and machine learning systems.

Can’t be allowed to circumvent copyrights

AI developers cannot be allowed to circumvent copyrights “and commit intellectual property theft by scraping the Internet for copyrighted works to train their models without permission from rights holders,” in other words, the performers and writers. Such “theft…threatens our hard-won health care benefits and retirement security.”

“All workers need a seat at the table, including through collective bargaining, to ensure that they benefit from these opportunities,” Biden told the group before the session began.

“The critical next steps in AI development should be built on the views of workers, labor unions, educators, and employers to support responsible uses of AI that improve workers’ lives, positively augment human work, and help all people safely enjoy the gains and opportunities from technological innovation.” Weingarten and Wood praised Biden’s executive order.

“This executive order erects meaningful guardrails that will uphold individual rights and set standards on data privacy, cybersecurity, discrimination, and fairness,” said Weingarten. Besides pushing federal agencies to “lead by example” in using AI in the workplace, “It’s based on the premise that if we want to harness AI’s promise, it must be driven by frontline workers—including educators, healthcare professionals, and public employees, who gave meaningful input into today’s order.

“We learned a lesson from the vast latitude granted to social media companies—and the resulting disinformation and mental health crises—that government has a duty to protect people as new innovations are launched.” Biden, Weingarten said, understands that time is of the essence.

Which brings up one more problem workers will face from AI: Lies, in next year’s election.

After all, if Elon Musk can let Donald Trump lie on X, formerly Twitter, what’s to prevent Donald Trump or Trump “zombies” from flooding the country with computer-AI-generated lies next year? Or if “Miners for Trump,” which was really a Russian bot, can promote a fake rally in Pittsburgh in October 2016, there’s nothing to prevent such bots from being computerized, copied, and circulated.

That already worries California workers, a new study from the University of California at Berkeley says. And that’s important since one of every people in the U.S. lives in the Golden State.

Some 73% of the 6,342 California voters polled said state lawmakers “have a responsibility to protect voters from AI and deepfake technology in the next election.” The survey, conducted in both English and Spanish, has an error of plus or minus 2%.

And 87% said, “Social media and other tech companies must clearly label deepfake and AI-generated audio, video, and images on their websites.” Facebook said it would do so on political ads, starting in January.

After all, “deepfake technology is the digital manipulation of video or audio to show real public figures appearing to say or do things that they never said or did,” the Berkeley surveyors explained.

Which sounds suspiciously like the use, or misuse, of artificial intelligence.

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Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.