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    SAG-AFTRA Members Debate AI Deal Merits Ahead of Ratification Vote – The Music news


    On Nov. 8, SAG-AFTRA reached a tentative deal with studios and streamers that officially brought an end to a nightmarish half a year of strikes in Hollywood. But initial jubilation among union actors soon turned to “crazy Internet infighting,” in the words of one member, over the agreement’s gains, principally the soundness of its AI protections. Now, some performers are wondering what the implications are for the contract’s ratification vote, closing Dec. 5. 

    To be clear, it would be highly unusual for SAG-AFTRA members to vote against ratifying the deal, as no tentative TV/theatrical contract agreements have been rejected in recent history at the union. Still, heated debate on online forums has some members wondering. “I have no idea how people are voting or what the split is going to be,” says actor and 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike captain Kate Bond (MacGyver). “The whole thing is pretty stressful.” Adds L.A. Local board member and The Handmaid’s Tale actor Ever Carradine, “It’s been a crazy, heated time.” She continues, “If Twitter is an indicator or Instagram, I’m concerned [that the deal won’t be ratified]. But if I have conversations with actual people, my level of concern comes down.”

    Despite the chatter, SAG-AFTRA national executive director Duncan Crabtree-Ireland, who headed up negotiations for the union, says he is “fairly confident” that members will ultimately approve the pact. “I do believe that our members will see this deal for what it is, which is an extraordinary and groundbreaking deal — not perfect, no deal ever is. [But] it really advances our members’ interests,” he says.

    Messaging and counter-messaging has swirled on social media in the days leading up to the final vote, which will decide whether the current iteration deal will go into effect for the next two and a half years or not. For every member noting they are “feeling frustrated w/ shortsighted & erosive GAI ‘protections’” there seems to be another (like Breaking Bad star Bryan Cranston) celebrating the pact’s “significant improvements.” While negotiating committee members Frances Fisher (Titanic) and Jason George (Station 19) have vigorously defended the deal’s AI language on their social media accounts, L.A. and national board member Matthew Modine (Stranger Things) publicized his opposition to the deal in a statement, saying “ratification of this contract will result in greater job reductions.”

    Under pressure from members to see the fine print of the deal, on Nov. 24 the union released a memorandum of agreement — a much fuller synopsis (stretching to 129 pages) of its tentative deal than the usual summary of agreement it publishes after deals are reached.

    For those who are voting “no” to the 2023 deal, there are several common AI concerns. One major sticking point is the contract’s allowance for “synthetic performers” to take roles, a practice that some members — including high-profile AI critic and former SAG national board member Justine Bateman — believe the union should have blocked altogether. (The contract does say companies need to provide the union appropriate notice and “an opportunity to bargain in good faith” when a synthetic performer takes a human role that would otherwise be played by a union member.) Some are concerned that the contract does not ban companies from using SAG-AFTRA performances to train AI tools, and/or that the contract does not prohibit companies from requiring scans and replications as a condition of employment. The union did secure a promise to meet “regularly” with companies to discuss potential pay for performances being used to train a generative AI system.

    There’s also scrutiny over the consent requirements for actors when it comes to synthetic performers with a recognizable facial feature that belongs to them. The agreement requires producers who use a recognizable feature (like a nose or eyes) from a human actor for a synthetic performer, after having entered that actor’s name and facial feature in a generative AI system prompt, to gain consent from and bargain with that performer. Argues Shaan Sharma (The Chosen), a negotiating committee alternate and national board member who voted “no” on the deal, actors will end up having to prove that a facial feature is their own. “The only time a performer has any right to consent and bargain is if you can recognize a facial feature that looks like your nose, your eyes, your lips, your mouth, your ears, whatever, and you can prove that they use both your natural name and that facial feature in the prompt that they entered into the model … with 8 billion people on the planet, how are you going to prove it’s not somebody else’s eyes and it’s your eyes?” he says.

    Adds Sharma, “We were advocating for protecting human being jobs in this negotiation, and we left all these doors open and all these people vulnerable because of this.”

    SAG-AFTRA leaders have argued that the AI protections are a starting point — the union will likely be negotiating over the issue again in two and a half years. Says Carradine, who voted “yes” on the deal, “I understand that I have informed consent and payment if they’re going to use my digital replica for something. And that, for me personally, is enough for the next two and a half years.” The contract also dictates that the union and studios meet at least semi-annually until then to discuss the companies’ use and intended use of generative artificial intelligence.

    Crabtree-Ireland adds, “I think under these circumstances, if you want something more than what’s in the deal, the best way to achieve that is to ratify the deal and start working on the next round of bargaining that’ll start in less than two and a half years.”

    On the other hand, deal critic Modine, a longtime national and local board member (who ran against sitting union president Fran Drescher for the role in 2021), says, “Given the history of kicking the can down the road with cable, VHS, DVDs, to have Duncan Crabtree-Ireland and the president of the union say, ‘Don’t worry about it, we’ll get it in the next deal,’ I’ve been in the business long enough to know that that never happens.”

    There are several possibilities for next steps, depending on the results of Tuesday’s ratification vote. If the deal does pass, it will go into effect imminently. If members reject the provisional agreement, the union’s national board and the negotiating committee would have to make the decision about next steps, which would likely involve going back to the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers to resume negotiations. If the deal just squeaks by or does not have a wide margin of support, the contract will take effect, but there could be longer-term implications for union leadership. In that scenario, “that hopefully will be a wakeup call to our leadership to do more to understand what our members need and to make sure that they deliver something that they know for sure our members will approve of,” says Sharma.

    Voter turnout is expected to be higher than usual when results are announced for the 2023 ratification vote, given the fact that this tentative agreement ended the union’s 118-day strike, fueled by unrest over the streaming business model and fears for the way the business could use AI. (In 2020, 27.15 percent of SAG-AFTRA members voted in its TV/theatrical contracts ratification contest, while in 2017, only 15.33 percent did so.)

    Wherever the union lands this year, members say that the level of member engagement so far — debating over contract terms, demanding to see further details of the agreement, asking lawyers for their opinion — is an important development. “We each get one vote. And I think that the power of each person’s one vote is what the power of the union is,” says Bond, who has voted “no” on the deal. “So I think that no matter what, if we have a high turnout, whether we vote yes or vote no, that’s a real show of strength for the union.”





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