Striking Writers Are on the Front Line of a Battle Between AI and Workers

"If we don’t strike for this right now, the AI technology will advance so quickly that it will no longer be possible to negotiate a fair contract in the context of AI."
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Image: Chloe Xiang

Outside of the Netflix headquarters in New York City on Wednesday, hundreds of members of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA) marched for a better contract on the second day of the writer's strike. They were there to communicate a clear message: Writers refuse to be replaced by AI.

Signs showcased slogans such as “Writers Generate All of it,” “Don’t Let ChatGPT Write ‘Yellowstone’,” “I Told ChatGPT To Make A Sign and It Sucked,” and “Don’t Uber Writing.” These signs referred to the unprecedented “AI” category in the guild’s proposal in which they asked to regulate the use of AI on union projects but were met with refusal from studios. Writers are seeking pay for episodes on streaming platforms, and to not have their work devalued and turned into gig labor due to the use of text-generating AI programs to write dialog. 

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Image: Chloe Xiang for Motherboard

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Image: Chloe Xiang for Motherboard

The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP), which represents a number of major entertainment companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Disney, told the guild that rather than ban the use of AI as source material, they would be open to annual meetings to discuss “advancements in technology.” This response immediately turned on alarm bells for writers in the guild, who realized that executives were more than willing to try and replace writers with AI. 

“We basically came to the table and said ‘scripts are written by writers and writers are people’ and they came back with the dystopian proposal of ‘well, what if they weren’t,’” Josh Gondelman, a TV comedy writer and a member of WGA East Council, told Motherboard at Wednesday's protest (VICE union workers are WGAE members). Rather than opening up a discussion about how AI can be integrated into the industry and what protections for writers need to be in place once that happens, Gondelman said the AMPTP’s reaction was, “Just, ‘once a year we’ll update you with how many of you we’ve replaced with machines.’” 

Many writers at the strike emphasized that their stance isn’t anti-AI as a whole, but pro-regulation in order to support working people. 


“Technology is changing very fast, the writers are aware of that, we know that AI is a thing and will probably be a tool that’s used in the future and all we want to do is make sure that’s fairly regulated,” Sasha Stewart, a TV writer, comedian, and WGA East Council member told Motherboard. “We want to make sure that at the end of the day, a script is written by a human being, and that human being is a writer’s guild member.”

“We don’t want some new technology that we don’t fully understand yet replacing us, because writers reflect what’s in society and technology can’t,” said Ahmadu Garba, a film and TV writer, who held up a sign that said, “I Told ChatGPT To Make a Sign and It Sucked.” 

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Ahmadu Garba at WGA strike in front of Netflix offices. Image by Chloe Xiang

The writers expressed that they are at a pivotal moment in history, as they are the first union with a contract that is up and addresses AI. They know that if the protections and boundaries of AI aren’t set right now, the technology will only continue to rapidly advance and, in the hands of studio executives, challenge the scope of their work. It's a concern that goes far beyond the world of Hollywood and TV writers, as the companies that build AIs position them as tools that can automate large swaths of American jobs, directly putting people out of work.


“If we don’t strike for this right now, the AI technology will advance so quickly that it will no longer be possible to negotiate a fair contract in the context of AI—even three years from now when our contract will be up again,” Liz Hynes, a writer for “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” WGA East Council member and strike captain, told Motherboard. “So we have to do it now or never.”

Many studio executives have already been vocal about their desire to use AI to generate scripts and concepts for shows and films. “One year from now will there be a script written by AI? Yes,” Todd Lieberman, a film and TV producer, said on a panel at the Milken Institute Global Conference in Beverly Hills on Wednesday. Rob Wade, the head of Fox’s entertainment business, added that AI will not just be used in scripts, but also for editing. 

“Clearly this is a way that vulture capital could use AI to replace us,” Greg Iwinski, a comedy writer, and member of WGA East Council and the negotiating committee with AMPTP, told Motherboard. “When you have vice presidents of global streaming companies saying, ‘I don’t believe in quality,’ then maybe it doesn’t matter that an AI can’t do something as smart or creative as a person as long as it can crank out the pages.” 


“For them to dig in their heels so hard about wanting to allow the possibility of using AI to replace writers or replace our work or mine our work to replicate it in some way. It’s pure evil,” Alex Zaragoza, a television writer and former VICE journalist, told Motherboard at the protest. “It takes away not just the heart and soul of what writing is, but it also takes away literal food from our mouths, it takes away the ability to get a good education, to pay rent, to live a life that has the possibility of thriving and actually sustaining yourself.” 

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Image by Chloe Xiang

The automation of writing has also caused many writers to fear that their jobs will become gigs, such as part-time and freelance work because of the possibility that AI will be able to replace many aspects of the writing process.

“We’re out here because these corporations want to turn us into gig workers. They want to make sure that we go from having a healthcare and pension fund plan to making sure that we can’t even make enough money to meet our [rate],” Stewart said. 

The WGA’s fight on the incorporation of AI into their work is something that will set a precedent for a number of industries, including actors, with executives hoping to turn their voices and likenesses into AI duplicates, and other online media writers, with publications like Buzzfeed already laying off human writers to use AI to generate articles.  

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Christy Escobar with her baby at the WGA Netflix strike. Image by Chloe Xiang

“I’m definitely worried that if it starts with the writers it always down the line affects us somehow,” Christy Escobar, an actor and member of SAG-AFTRA, told Motherboard. “Technology is only advancing and unless we put a stand to what our boundaries are as artists, it’s unfortunately going to go the way of the computer.” 

“We are hoping this is a bellwether not just for our movement but for the labor movement at large because we need to figure out how to work AI reasonably into peoples’ contracts in a way that enriches lives and makes everyone’s lives easier, jobs easier, gives you more free time but also protects the value of your labor and what your worth,” Hynes said. 

“Whatever happens to us, will happen to all of us. Whatever form of writing you’re doing will all be affected by the outcome of this strike, so remember that we’re all in this together,” Zaragoza said. 

Additional reporting was done by Emily Lipstein.