Writers Stand in International Solidarity on Strikes and AI

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

The UK’s WGGB praises ‘a show of solidarity from writers and union siblings on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed around the world.’

In the UK, members of the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain stage a protest in solidarity with the States’ Writers Guild of America members. Image: WGGB, Em Fitzgerald

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

In Hollywood, WGA Urges Writers Join Picketing Actors
The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain today (September 25) has joined with many in the international publishing and writing industries in cheering the news from California that the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and Hollywood’s studios and streamers have reached a tentative labor settlement in the nearly five-month strike action that began in May.

As Joe Flint is writing this evening at the Wall Street Journal, while the actual details of the agreement aren’t yet known, “The writers came away with several hard-fought victories in the three-year deal, including increased royalties, mandatory staffing for television ‘writing rooms,’ and protections regarding the use of artificial intelligence, people familiar with the pact said.”

Cautionary messaging has been the order of the day within labor’s circles, reflected in the messaging from London, reading, “Writers in the UK are advised that the WGA membership is still on strike and until the strike is formally ended then our current advice to our members and all UK writers remains in place.”

This involves the fact that the accord is what the union in Hollywood calls “an agreement in principle on all deal points, subject to drafting final contract language.”

Union staff will first be sure that everything the WGA negotiators believe they’ve won is correctly stated in the contract.

“Once the memorandum of agreement with the AMPTP is complete,” the union writes, “the negotiating committee will vote on whether to recommend the agreement and send it on to the WGAW board and WGAE council for approval. [That’s the Writers Guild of American West and East chapters, and the AMPTP is the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers—the studios.] The board and council will then vote on whether to authorize a contract ratification vote by the membership.

“If that authorization is approved, the board and council would also vote on whether to lift the restraining order and end the strike at a certain date and time–to be determined–pending ratification. This would allow writers to return to work during the ratification vote, but would not affect the membership’s right to make a final determination on contract approval.”

It’s expected that on Tuesday (September 26), if these steps are moving as planned, the membership and the public will learn just what’s in the various points of the agreement.

“To be clear,” the union in the States and its supporting organizations such as the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain are stressing, “no one is to return to work until specifically authorized to by the Guild. We are still on strike until then. But we are, as of today, suspending WGA picketing. Instead, if you are able, we encourage you to join the SAG-AFTRA picket lines this week.”

AG’s Rasenberger: ‘No Replacement for Human Art’

That reference to the SAG-AFTRA picket lines, of course is a reminder that the actors still are very much on strike, even after the 146-day writers’ walkout—which many observers close to the process say has only been ended because studio executives joined the negotiating teams, putting top-level studio-side authority into the room. According to Jennifer Saba’s commentary at Reuters, those studio heads included “Walt Disney boss Bob Iger, Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos, Warner Bros Discovery head David Zaslav, and NBC Universal Studio Chair Donna Langley.”

It’s also anticipated that the issues around artificial intelligence may carry a starkly different vulnerability for the more-than 150,000 striking actors than for the writers, not least because the actors’ faces and bodies can be digitally purloined and exploited if the needed protections aren’t hammered out. Brian Merchant at the Los Angeles Times this afternoon has produced a particularly strong piece on the AI issue.

He writes, in part, “At a moment when the prospect of executives and managers using software automation to undermine work in professions everywhere loomed large, the strike became something of a proxy battle of humans vs. AI. It was a battle that most of the public was eager to see the writers win.”

Not for nothing, after all, have the Authors Guild in the United States joined 17 authors in a class-action lawsuit against OpenAI in the Southern District of New York, alleging copyright infringement. Some of the biggest names in commercial literature in the States are party to that action, announced on Wednesday (September 20), including David Baldacci, Mary Bly, Michael Connelly, Sylvia Day, Jonathan Franzen, John Grisham, Elin Hilderbrand, Christina Baker Kline, Maya Shanbhag Lang, Victor LaValle, George R.R. Martin, Jodi Picoult, Douglas Preston, Roxana Robinson, George Saunders, Scott Turow, and Rachel Vail.

In that new case, the Guild writes, it “organized the lawsuit after witnessing first-hand the harm and existential threat to the author profession wrought by the unlicensed use of books to create large language models that generate texts.”

Mary Rasenberger

In that instance, Authors Guild CEO Mary Rasenberger says, “It is imperative that we stop this theft in its tracks or we will destroy our incredible literary culture, which feeds many other creative industries in the United States.

“Great books are generally written by those who spend their careers and, indeed, their lives, learning and perfecting their crafts. To preserve our literature, authors must have the ability to control if and how their works are used by generative AI.

“The various GPT models and other current generative AI machines can only generate material that is derivative of what came before it. They copy sentence structure, voice, storytelling, and context from books and other ingested texts. The outputs are mere remixes without the addition of any human voice. Regurgitated culture is no replacement for human art.”

WGGB’s Holdsworth: ‘Standing With Colleagues Overseas’

Meanwhile, however, the Writers Guild and its allied organizations in international markets, as well as in Hollywood, are stressing the importance of the moment.

In London, Writers’ Guild of Great Britain chair Lisa Holdsworth’s message reads, “We send our congratulations to our sister union in the States on reaching a tentative agreement with the AMPTP.

“In the past 146 days we’ve seen an extraordinary show of solidarity from writers and their union siblings on both sides of the Atlantic, and indeed around the world.

Lisa Holdsworth

“We’ve been overwhelmed by the response of our own membership in standing with their striking colleagues overseas—you have followed the WGA strike rules to the letter, turned out to the WGGB protest in London in the summer, and sent a tsunami of support on social media. Some of you have even joined picket lines in the States. Your solidarity has counted and your voice has been heard–both by the Writers Guild of America and their members but also by the streamers, studios and producers who have witnessed this global display of collective action and have—finally—listened.

“We are also aware of the acute impact the strike is having on the UK creative industries, on our own members and members of our sister entertainment unions, too, so we look forward to a speedy resolution to both this strike and that of SAG-AFTRA, to whom we continue to send our solidarity.

“We look forward to the details of the WGA deal and its implications for UK writers. All writers working for streaming platforms must enjoy decent terms and conditions and the best way to achieve these is through union agreements – our work here will continue.”

A programming note: On Frankfurt Thursday at Frankfurter Buchmesse (October 18 to 22), be sure to join us in our Publishing Perspectives Forum at 12 p.m. for a special session, “The State of AI in Publishing Today,” in which we’ll look at where things stand on so many fronts affecting the book publishing industry. Thomas Cox, managing director of Oxford’s Arq Works will moderate a panel featuring:

As last year, the PP Forum is set in the bright, tree-lined Room Spektrum on Level 2 of the Messe Frankfurt Congress Center. More on the Forum and its programming is here, with information on our speakers and their appearances.

More from Publishing Perspectives on the United Kingdom’s market is here, more on the United States’ market is here, and more on authors and writers is here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (Fellow, National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.