Writers on the Line

On the Line
IATSE Appreciation, a Power Trip, and Talking AI in DC
President Stiehm talks to the Senate about AI, Courtney A. Kemp and Safia M. Dirie bring the Power to TV City, and IATSE Appreciation Day at Fox
Thursday, September 21, 2023

President Stiehm Talks AI in DC

(L-R) American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Senator Amy Klobuchar, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and WGAW President Meredith Stiehm

WGAW President Meredith Stiehm was in Washington D.C. last week to participate in the AI Insight Panel hosted by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. Joining Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and leaders from tech, civil rights, motion pictures and labor, Stiehm presented the WGA’s concerns about AI and the need for legislation to protect the rights and integrity of writers’ work.
Stiehm's remarks are below:
Good morning.
Thank you, Leader Schumer, for inviting me to be part of this discussion.
It is an honor to be here, as the lone artist at the table to speak on behalf of writers in film and television, and the broader creative community.
Today is Day 135 of the national writers' strike. This struggle is about the future of work for writers — wages, work conditions and frankly, whether there will even be writing careers in Hollywood at all.
One word you hear a lot on the picket line is “existential.”  It is not an overstatement. Writers face a drastically changing media landscape.  They are striking against corporations that have used every tool at their disposal – consolidation, vertical integration, and new technologies to de-value writers’ work, and cut us out of the profits of our labor. 
One of these new technologies is Artificial Intelligence.
Writers, actors, directors, musicians, painters, novelists, photographers, poets – I could go on – we make our living by creating art that is unique to each of us. With AI, companies are proposing to take our work – our words, voices, and likenesses – without our consent, without compensation, or attribution.
Large language models can be used to scrape the entirety of the internet to “create” a screenplay, or TV pilot in the style of a writer like me.
But AI cannot really create. It does not speak from lived experience.  Instead it takes the words and style of human authors to mimic what we create. In writing, that’s called plagiarism. In legal terms, its intellectual property theft.
In our current negotiations and strike, the WGA is insisting on protections so that our employers – the studios that make movies and TV – cannot use AI to devalue or under compensate our work; and cannot use our material to train AI, without consent.
We are lucky. We have a powerful union. We secure reuse compensation through collective bargaining, every three years. But most artists do not have that kind of advocacy. They need laws. Guardrails. Protections.
Unfortunately, we writers cannot address all of our concerns through collective bargaining. We will need public policy solutions too.
The legal status of AI under existing law in unsettled but is already the subject of innumerable legal challenges. I speak not as a lawyer (I am not one) but as an artist to say that AI is antithetical to the very thing we do.
Humans live, they walk through the world; they experience joy, regret, embarrassment, self-loathing, fear, euphoria — and from all that experience they write, or paint, or compose. They create human to human connection by sharing stories and truths and emotions through art.
 AI can only copy that art, repurpose it, and now, try to monetize it.  
 AI is the replacement of human creativity with theft.
We believe that any future policy on AI must be grounded in three principles: consent, compensation, and protection of jobs for humans. AI has the great potential to assist the creative community as they make their art – but it must not serve the further threaten writers and the integrity of our work.
As President Biden said early in our strike, film and TV “is an iconic, meaningful American industry, and we need the writers and all of the workers involved to tell the stories of our nation.”
We are on strike to protect that industry.
I look forward to this conversation today, and working with Leader Schumer and Senate members to protect art, and artists, as this country always has, for generations to come. 
 Thank you.

A Power Trip at Television City Picket

WGAW members Safia M. Dirie and Courtney A. Kemp at the Power Universe picket at Television City

Nearly 150 days into the strike, WGAW members Courtney A. Kemp and Safia M. Dirie felt that an overdue Power-verse reunion picket would be just the thing to, ahem!, energize the picket line. So that’s just what they arranged Tuesday at Television City.
“It was a nice coincidence because Bill Maher was here, and now he’s not,” said Kemp, referring to Maher’s decision to reverse course and not resume production on Real Time with Bill Maher. “I’m glad we’re doing it so late in the strike, to get more energy up and more people to come out. We haven’t seen people in a really long time. We’ve all gone our separate ways.”
Kemp created Power in 2013 for Starz, and the series has gone on to spawn three spin-offs. Dirie, a co-EP on CSI: Vegas who worked on Power, enthusiastically embraced the idea of reuniting writers, actors, and crew from the original series along with spin-offs Power Book II: Ghost, Power Book III: Raising Kanan, and Power Book IV: Force.
But as enjoyable as it was to get long-time friends together on the lines, the two writer-producers said that they are on the picket lines fully in solidarity with their union’s fight for a fair contract. There are important issues at stake, they said.
“We worked from May to January every year on the first five seasons of Power because our showrunner wanted us and needed us and created a space for us to learn, and it was 2013 and Starz was willing to pay for it,” said Kemp. "Now you're seeing a lot of that change, where a lot of people are like, 'Great, now you've got the show. Can you just write it all by yourself and get rid of everyone else?' No, I can't because their experience and creativity is what actually makes the show work." 
On Power, Dirie said, the writers’ room lasted 20 weeks, enough time for a writer to earn his, her, or their year. The writers went to set and produced their episodes.
“That’s what our showrunner wanted us to do, and the studio gave us the money to do it,” said Dirie. “There are so many younger writers who aren’t getting that ability or that experience and that makes them, frankly, less employable.”
Kemp likens the Power structure to a “teaching hospital” in which younger less-experienced writers are taught the elements of producing, casting, and being on set. As a current generation of showrunners ages, if rooms continue to shrink, the showrunner pipeline will dry up and the next generation of writer-producers won’t know how to do the job.
“At some point, we’re going to have lot of kids who don’t know how to talk an actor off a ledge, who don’t know how to write a budget, who don’t know how to rewrite a script in order to make budget,” said Kemp. “These are only things you can learn by being in production when the showrunner is in production. So we want all of those things. We want to preserve the profession.”

IATSE Appreciation Day at Fox

IATSE members in solidarity with the WGA at IATSE Appreciation Day at Fox. Photo by J.W. Hendricks.

Along with their solidarity, striking WGA showrunners have shown their generosity.

One week after their march together for a fair contract at Fox Studios, several WGA showrunners returned to Fox Studios for IATSE Appreciation day, a picket that saw organizers give out thousands of dollars in gift cards donated by the showrunners to the below-the-line craftspeople who have supported and been impacted by the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.

From the time that the Showrunner solidarity picket was announced until Tuesday, organizers collected more than $45,000 in donations of grocery, Target, and Amazon gift cards earmarked for crew members. Organizers collected more than 700 gift cards, which will be able to provide direct assistance to 280 people. About half of the cards were handed out Tuesday. The rest were mailed.

Tuesday’s picket also included food and coffee trucks donated by WGA showrunners Nkechi Okoro Carroll, Alexi Hawley, Alex Cunningham, Andrew Goldberg, Channing Powell, Amy Berg, Gina Welch, Michelle Paradise, Raamla Mohamed, and Janine Sherman Barrois. The event also included a raffle of grocery gift cards, donations from restaurants, and other items.

“We have a great understanding of what this labor stoppage has done to IATSE, to the rest of our crews, to the Teamsters, to everyone,” said Berg, a Fox Lot Coordinator, showrunner, and co-organizer of the Showrunner Solidarity and IATSE Appreciation Day pickets. “We just want to show that we appreciate them, we support them, and we’re going to have their backs when the time comes.”

Beau Baker, a sound mixer and member of IATSE Local 695, said he is proud to support the strike. Although he has worked on Grey’s Anatomy for the past 18 years, he acknowledged that many of his IATSE siblings are “in desperate straits.”

“There are people who have applied for every grant they can think of,” said Baker. “We go to work expecting to work for so many months a year. We save for those few months that we’re off, but for a lot of people, now it’s been five months. I hope we have enough determination and solidarity to let the studios know we mean business because they don’t care.”

From what he has seen on the picket lines, Baker is confident that the collective resolve is as strong as ever.

“I’ve watched our ability to make a living go away. I’ve watched our working conditions deteriorate, and it’s time to say we’ve had enough,” Baker said. “I want everybody in my union to know that we have people now that are fighting for us, and then next year, when IATSE’s contract is up, maybe we’ll get to fight again. That’s why I’m here.”