News & Commentary

April 30, 2023

Will Ebeler

Will Ebeler is a student at Harvard Law School.

In this weekend’s news and commentary, Hollywood braces for a Writers Guild strike; New York reaches a tentative budget agreement; and a union decertification petition is filed at a Buffalo, New York Starbucks store.

The screenwriters for many of Hollywood’s biggest shows and movies are poised to go on strike Tuesday morning. Earlier in April, the Writers Guild of America, representing roughly 11,500 screenwriters, voted to authorize a strike unless they manage to reach an agreement before May 2. As of Sunday morning, a deal did not appear close.

Writers and studios alike have been preparing for a strike for weeks. Many writers have been rushing to meet deadlines that their studios moved up in advance of the strike. Some, facing the prospect of what could be months without pay, have been trying to find new projects which usually include up-front payments. Television studios, meanwhile, have been pushing to have scripts finalized so that production can continue while the writers strike. They have pushed production to the fall on some series whose scripts are not yet ready. And late-night comedy shows are likely to go off-air if there is a strike. Meanwhile, streaming and movie studios may be less impacted, at least in the short term. Many streaming services have been facing pressure to cut costs and some industry insiders thought they could view a strike as a benefit. Further, because movie studios operate at a longer time scale than television does, they won’t feel the impact of a strike as immediately.

The last time writers authorized a strike, in 2017, the sides ultimately reached an agreement a few hours before a strike began.

Negotiations for a new contract have been ongoing since mid March. Elyse discussed some of the writers’ demands two weeks ago, and this weekend reporters at the New York Times highlighted a new concern driven by the increasing prevalence of artificial intelligence.

The union has two demands related to the use of automation. First, it wants to ensure that no literary material can be written or rewritten by an automated program. The union’s members are concerned most prominently about the possibility of a producer or director modifying a script using a program like ChatGPT, but they also are concerned that eventually studios might start using artificial intelligence to generate scripts entirely. Second, it wants to prevent studios from using automated programs to generate ideas or other source material that would then be adapted by screenwriters.

Other industry workers have flagged their own concerns about the use of automation in film and television. Netflix, for example, has provisions in its contracts with voice actors giving it the right to use a simulation of an actor’s voice “by all technologies and processes now known or hereafter developed, throughout the universe and in perpetuity.” Netflix claims the provision’s purpose is to allow it to modify one actor’s recorded audio to make it sound like another’s, particularly when a new actor fills in an existing role. Actors are now concerned that such language could give Netflix the right to automatically generate entire movies using simulations of an actor’s voice without having to hire a new actor at all.

Next, lawmakers in New York reached a tentative budget agreement on Thursday. Governor Hochul and the state legislature have been working to reach a compromise on the state’s budget for several weeks. The bill will raise the statewide minimum wage to $17 by 2027 (it will reach $17 in 2026 for New York City, Long Island, and Westchester County), with future increases tied to inflation. It also amends the state’s bail law to let judges consider “public safety” when setting bail, making it easier to keep people in jail before trial. Governor Hochul won her election last year on a promise to fight crime and viewed the bail law as a top priority in fulfilling that promise. Other provisions in the budget agreement include a ban on natural gas in new buildings; funding for free meals for school children; and increased funding for the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Some details of the agreement are still being worked out, but lawmakers could finalize and approve the budget as early as this week.

Finally, on Friday workers at a Starbucks store in Buffalo, New York petitioned to decertify Workers United as their union representative. The store voted to unionize by an 18-1 vote in April 2022 and is now the third store to submit a decertification petition. An Oklahoma-based Starbucks filed a petition that was dismissed by the NLRB shortly after it was submitted, and earlier this month, a petition from a store in Georgia was withdrawn less than a week after it was submitted. To be valid, a petition must be filed at least a year after the unit’s certification and have proof that at least 30% of the workers support decertification. However, given numerous allegations that the company has failed to bargain in good faith, the union could try to extend the year-long grace period to allow a full year of actual bargaining.

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