Writers to the Front, AI to the Back

13 Jun 2023

Tomorrow, the Writers Guild of America is calling for an international day of solidarity for their strike. So today, we hear from L.E. Correia, a TV comedy writer and WGA member, about the union’s precedent-setting fight against corporate power grabs with AI. Over 11,500 members are holding the (picket) line while pushing for better pay, improved workplace conditions, and a new type of demand on the bargaining table: protection against AI plagiarism.

13 people standing and posing with Writers Guild placards in front of a grey corproate office building with palm trees in the background. Most have hats and glasses and are smiling despite the tough circumstances. Their placards say 'No Writers, No Words' and 'Spoiler: The Studios Lose' and more

L.E. with 'Big Mouth' writers picketing outside of Netflix HQ in Hollywood, California

The Worker’s Perspective

By L.E. Correia

Hi from the picket lines, I’m L.E. Correia.

In the six years I’ve spent in the WGA as a TV writer, I can’t say I’ve once considered myself to be any kind of tech worker. But, when allies from TWC asked for my thoughts about our current strike, I did consider it. I considered that (in regular life) almost every writer I know, including me, works for a streaming company. Then, I considered the fact that if my wifi goes down, all television suddenly ceases to exist. Two thoughts later, I’m here to tell you that screenwriters are definitely some kind of tech worker, and so are almost all of our industry colleagues.

For those of us who began our careers within the past decade or so, the current streamer-dominated landscape has never even felt new. We’ve long taken for granted that having cable is passé, that an algorithm decides what shows Netflix makes, and that Amazon Prime boxes will turn Masel pink and Minion yellow with the changing seasons. It’s all been normal for long enough that I often forget how different things were, and how recently.

But scripted entertainment’s transformation-by-internet only really began around 2007, which was also the year the WGA last went on strike against the studios. I wasn’t in the guild then, but I’ve brushed up: a central issue was compensation for what we now call streaming… except it was the aughts, so we had to call it something twee like “vodcasting.” Anyway, there was plenty of future-tense skepticism at the time. Would this TV-via-laptop thing even catch on?

I mean, of course it would. The ’07 guild saw where our industry was headed and they fought for their contract accordingly. That foresight won me more or less every protection I enjoy today as a writer on a Netflix show. I think about this often when I’m out on the picket lines now, shouting about AI, wondering about the future that might arrive next. Will they really try to replace us with chatbots?

I mean, of course they will. Try, that is. But the good news is that the WGA is stacked with just as many smart, prescient thinkers as it was sixteen years ago, and we’re all pretty hellbent on humanity.

Hang on, though. Can I pause catastrophizing about the robot takeover to quickly tell you what I was doing back in ‘07, while my forebears were in the streets securing my future? I was crossing their picket lines, sort of.

It was my freshman year of college, and I’d Amtraked to New York with a friend to see a “Daily Show” taping during holiday break. Outside the studio, picketers were trudging their small circle through wintry sludge, which threw me at first. I dimly recalled something about a writers’ strike being in the news? But any detail about what exactly they were striking for had been bleached from my brain via dorm-binged vodka. The writers had formed their picket line behind a barricade away from the entrance – so strictly speaking, I never had to cross their ranks to get inside. (The ‘07 pickets were by and large visibility demonstrations, not actions meant to interrupt production, as many of ours are this time around.) Let’s face it, though – I was a mortifying comedy nerd to whom a live John Stewart monologue was some Eras-tour-caliber bucket list shit. Faced with the direct choice between crossing and not, I may well have chosen wrong.

The shameful truth is that the presence of a picket line just didn’t mean much to me then. (Or, you know, to John Stewart. But we’re both atoning.) Labor politics wasn’t something I’d yet formed a consciousness around.

Growing up, I mostly thought of unions as quaint dead things, strongly associated with the crumbling textile mills of Fall River, MA where my aunts and grandmother had all worked at different points in their lives. My Auntie Ellie, an older third parent to me during childhood, often talked about the “sweatshops”, and never fondly. Seamstressing was the kind of punishing physical labor that has always been undervalued as “women’s work,” and was undervalued further in the context of a rapidly-dying U.S. industry. As textile jobs moved abroad, Ellie’s diminished clothing and textile worker union would have had less and less power to fight the forces of globalization, Nixonian austerity, and good old-fashioned corporate greed that immiserated them. During Ellie’s years, I think they fought more than they won.

So what trickled down to me when I heard her stories never felt much like union pride – more like class shame, or class exhaustion. When I finally joined the WGA, years into my own adult life, I found myself relearning everything I assumed about labor unions, and what membership could mean. For me, it meant a reprieve from piecemeal production work and paycheck-to-paycheck nervousness. It meant residuals, and great health insurance, and the ability to swipe my debit card without having to double-check my account balance first. (None of this should suggest that my pre-guild life was ever as precarious as my aunt’s or my parents’ – only that I came up in the early ‘10s, when all millennials were marks on a prank show called “The Economy,” executive produced by Alan Greenspan and God.) Above all, joining the WGA taught me that labor unions – my labor union – could win as often as it fought.

Which brings me back to our current fight against the studios, as they attempt to roll back every single protection and benefit I mentioned above. And yes, they’ll use AI to do it if they can.

It still feels absurd to talk about. Like, even as I write this, I’m entirely aware of (and very entertained by) how much of a hot mess AI currently seems to be. Bing chat? Girl. We read your texts and we’re worried about you. ChatGPT? Before the strike, a “Big Mouth” coworker of mine jokingly prompted it to pitch an episode idea, and its response was, to be generous, word chowder from turdland. So I’m decidedly not worried about an all-AI writers’ room existing tomorrow, or even next year. But after a quick look at who’s making AI, there’s still plenty to dread.

I believe the Sarandoses and Zaslavs of the world have an awful little dream in which they eliminate most writers, but not all. They’d then turn the few of us who remain into AI custodians — paid as little as possible to rewrite the stream of secondhand garbage generated by their proprietary software. They dream of this because they’re dull people who can only dream of cost cuts. On some nights I’m sure these guys are honk-shooing in their mansions having the exact same dream about voice actors, or about costume and production designers. Animators. Editors. Storyboard artists…

The resulting content would obviously be grim, the economics grimmer, and the CEOs… would celebrate all of it. As the studios’ contract proposals make clear, their goal is to destroy as many of our jobs as possible, consequences irrelevant. Here are some other things these handsome men don’t seem to care about:

  • The average writer’s ability to pay rent
  • Rising BIPOC writers getting locked out of the industry
  • The world beyond their mansion walls, or how on fire it is

Why would they care? After all, this is the same executive class that chose to enslave children abroad rather than pay people like my aunt a living wage. They gave it a bloodless term (“outsourcing”), watched entire economies wither, and didn’t blink once. They won’t blink this time either if we give them the chance to implement their new wave of outsourcing, whatever they decide to call this one. “AI Liberation” probably, because corniness does not scare them. Organized labor alone scares them, and (even better) agitates them. They hate our stubborn refusal to embrace our own oblivion, and their huge pale foreheads – I’m certain of this – get redder each day we hold strong.

By the way, I know “oblivion” is a dramatic word choice from a lady who, while not on strike, gets to write crotch and ass jokes for a gorgeous dumb show about crotches and asses. But hey — these are dramatic times.

That’s almost certainly why we’re seeing such unprecedented support from our sister Hollywood labor unions. SAG-AFTRA members are organizing tirelessly and showing up to our pickets in droves. (They also just passed their own strike authorization vote by an undeniable margin. Hell yes, let’s boogie.) IATSE crews and Teamster drivers are honoring WGA picket lines on both coasts, halting productions and costing studios tens of thousands in a day. Beyond historic. The class and labor consciousness that eluded me as a clueless young “Daily Show” fan now feels widespread, and intergenerational. I’ll never forget the first time I witnessed an entire crew sitting on a sidewalk outside of their soundstage, risking or forfeiting pay, refusing to work for as long as we held the line. My soul filled up. Somewhere, a forehead darkened from ruby to scarlet.

The solidarity has been incredible to see, not in like a sweet kumbaya way, but in an urgent fuck-these-fucking-fucks kind of way. My Auntie Ellie died this past January, but I know she’d be in equal parts proud of what we’re doing, and ashamed as ever of my profanity.

While no movement is a monolith, I’m confident leaving you with this overview of ours: Everybody’s mad, no one’s confused, and it’s working. We know this is our last best shot to carve a livable future out of Hollywood’s mega-conglomerate hellscape. I’m so proud to be a member of the guild currently leading the charge, laying the foundation for what labor power looks like in the face of AI. We’re out of work, out of patience, and we have nothing to do but win.

Thank you to Raksha, Kaylen, Tamara, and Danny of TWC for helping put solidarity in writing (pun). Readers, please support our crew members who require financial support during this strike with a donation to our Entertainment Community Fund.