SAG-AFTRA members vote on deal with Hollywood studios amid AI concerns
Members of SAG-AFTRA are scheduled to conclude several weeks of voting Tuesday on the tentative deal that ended the actors union's 118-day strike against Hollywood studios — but the tally could prove to be close, with some members urging a "no" vote amid continued concerns over the use of artificial intelligence.
The end of balloting — officially at 5 p.m. Tuesday — comes about three weeks after the union's national board of directors approved the agreement and urged members to vote "yes." But the national board's vote of 86% to 14% in favor of approval reflected at least a slight rift that could reverberate among the rank-and-file.
While the tentative deal includes "consent and compensation guardrails" on the use of AI that will require studios to obtain an actor's informed consent before creating or using a digital replica of a performer, some members say those guardrails don't go far enough.
Actor Matthew Modine — one of the "no" voters on the National Board — has been among the more vocal opponents of the tentative three-year deal, particularly in regard to the use of AI. Last month, he posted on social media:
"Within the contract, the word `consent' is evoked at least a dozen times. It is purposefully vague and demands union members to release their autonomy. Agreeing to consent means contractually giving a go-ahead to our employers to digitally capture and reconstruct our physicality and our voices using artificial intelligence. Once this information is collected, a member can be regenerated whenever and however the contract holder chooses forever."
In addition, after the full 129-page tentative deal was released by the union shortly after Thanksgiving, the hashtag #SAGAFTRAvoteNO emerged on social media, with numerous posters voicing opposition and citing what they said are insufficient protections against AI.
"If the selling point is `No contract is perfect' you're getting Used- Car-Salesmanned into a bad deal," one poster on wrote on social media. "... A NO vote on AMPTP's contract OFFER simply gets us back to bargaining table w/more leverage than ever to get fair deal we need."
NBC News quoted another poster, actor and SAG-AFTRA member Alex Plank, as calling the AI provisions "disappointing" because they allow "synthetic performers to compete with human ones."
But union leadership continues to urge a "yes" vote, while touting the AI protections, and other contract improvements, its negotiating committee did win from the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, which represents the studios.
"We have forged the biggest deal in industry history, which broke pattern, established new revenue streams and passed a historic $1 billion plus deal with the most progressive AI protections ever written," SAG-AFTRA President Fran Drescher said last month. "I feel pretty confident in saying this is a paradigm shift of seismic proportions."
Variety quoted Drescher, during a Zoom meeting with members last month, as calling critics of the proposed deal
"naysayers who have exploited this momentum of ours."
Chief union negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland said that if the deal is ratified, it will "fundamentally reset how our membership is compensated to account for the growth of streaming and, for the first time, institute deep protections against the encroachment of AI technology."
Meanwhile, Drescher, lobbying for approval of the deal, also posted comments from actor Bryan Cranston on the SAG-AFTRA website, in which Cranston wrote, "Contract negotiations are tough, often mentally brutal and exhausting. It's a battle."
"No side will EVER get everything they wanted or hoped for," Cranston wrote. "That is the plain truth of every labor dispute. When all is said and done, if you come out of it with significant improvements, celebrate your victory. That's why I am voting YES on this hard-fought contract proposal."
Besides the AI "guardrails," key components of the tentative agreement include:
— a 7% increase in general wages, effective immediately, with future increases in 2024 and 2025; a total package of more than $1 billion in new wages and funding for benefits;
— establishment of a streaming participation bonus that will compensate performers in addition to traditional residuals, and
— other provisions, including improved relocation benefits, regulations on self-taped auditions and increased residuals for stunt performers.
The contract is retroactive and runs through June 30, 2026.
"We are pleased that the (union's) National Board has recommended the agreement for ratification by the membership," an AMPTP spokesperson said last month. "We are also grateful that the entire industry has enthusiastically returned to work."
Hollywood production had essentially been at a standstill since May 2, when the Writers Guild of America went on strike and SAG-AFTRA performers mostly honored their picket lines. The WGA ended its strike in late September, and members overwhelmingly ratified their new deal in early October. SAG-AFTRA walked off the job July 14.
The shutdown is estimated to have cost the local economy billions of dollars, affecting not only actors and writers but all aspects of the production industry, as well as small businesses that rely on entertainment workers, such as restaurants and caterers.
It was not immediately known when results of the voting would be released.