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Man, SAG-AFTRA’s Strike-Ending Contract Kind of Sucks

On a SAG-AFTRA picket line, one sign reads "AI is yuck!"

On November 8, SAG-AFTRA and the AMPTP reached a tentative deal to end the 118-day Hollywood strike. The actors’ union still has to vote on the agreement but in the interim, actors have been given the green light to return to work. But with only a few days left before that vote, it’s looking like less and less of a done deal.

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Though the strike was declared over earlier this month and previously struck projects have been free to resume production, things aren’t officially settled until the union’s voting period concludes on December 5. And some members are urging their peers not to accept what they see as an insufficient and exploitative deal.

The SAG-AFTRA strike, like the writers’ strike before it, arose out of demands for progress in a number of areas, including pay, improved benefits, and a reassessment of compensation in the streaming era.

Another major point of contention—and one that has not been resolved to everyone’s satisfaction—is the ways in which artificial intelligence is being implemented in entertainment.

“The AI tsunami”

In a statement titled “When Consent Is Not Consensual,” actor and SAG board member Matthew Modine went in hard on the (as he sees it) deliberately vague language used in the agreement as it pertains to giving “consent” to turn one’s likeness to AI programs.

“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,” Modine writes. “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.”

He continues:

Consent, in the context of this agreement, is tyranny. It is submission. If ratified, SAG-AFTRA members who consent will be digitally exploited in ways not clearly defined and are currently beyond our individual abilities to control. The US Government, with all its resources, doesn’t know how to create AI guardrails to provide protections for citizens. SAG-AFTRA certainly doesn’t have the financial resources or technology to navigate the AI tsunami crashing upon the shores of the entertainment industry.

Modine is not the only one speaking out against the deal. As Rolling Stone reported earlier this month:

Sebastian Ryder, a co-chair of the Background Artists Coalition, spent the 118th day of the strike outside NBCUniversal’s New York office and was among those who celebrated SAG-AGTRA’s tentative deal last week. But after receiving the summary agreement, Ryder says the AI provisions leave room for abuse. 

“Every actor in the world knows that even if you’re down to your last nickel and they’re offering you $1,000, you don’t do that because you need to maintain control of your image,” Ryder tells Rolling Stone. “It’s our livelihood. It’s our calling card. It’s what makes us money. So now in this agreement, we’re being asked to sign that away. It just doesn’t feel right.”

Releasing the full contract

You’ll notice Rolling Stone writes that Ryder expressed concern after receiving a “summary agreement.” That’s because the voting process started before union members had access to the full contract. It was only last Friday, weeks after the union’s board voted to approve the agreement and after members’ anger began to publicly boil over, that the Screen Actors Guild negotiating committee agreed to release the full 128-page contract.

That move does not appear to have assuaged many union members’ concerns. Scrolling through the #sagaftravoteno tag on Twitter, you’ll see lots of actors and advocacy groups explaining their refusal to support a deal they see as exploitative.

In his statement, Modine urges members to “vote their conscience.” As for his own conscience, he writes, “I cannot endorse a contract that compromises the independence and financial futures of the performers. As a National Board Member, it’s morally mandatory to stand beside and provide protection for fellow members. Especially those beginning their careers, those unable to defend themselves, and in this case, their identities, their voices, and their physicality, from being taken away by a technology that no one fully understands.”

Whether there will be enough no votes to kill the agreement is impossible to tell. We’ll be keeping an eye on this on December 5.

Read the full contract here.

(featured image: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

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Vivian Kane
Vivian Kane (she/her) is the Senior News Editor at The Mary Sue, where she's been writing about politics and entertainment (and all the ways in which the two overlap) since the dark days of late 2016. Born in San Francisco and radicalized in Los Angeles, she now lives in Kansas City, Missouri, where she gets to put her MFA to use covering the local theatre scene. She is the co-owner of The Pitch, Kansas City’s alt news and culture magazine, alongside her husband, Brock Wilbur, with whom she also shares many cats.

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