Word Count 47: Why we should all care about the WGA writer’s strike

by Suw on May 9, 2023

Plus the importance of the WGA’s AI demands, Fieldwork, The Lacemaker, and opportunity costs.

Hi there,

Happy 1st Birthday to Word Count! It’s about a year since I started this newsletter, and I’m slightly surprised that I’ve stuck to my weekly schedule. I have to be honest, I thought that my initial enthusiasm would wear off a bit, but I am still really enjoying myself, so it looks like this cadence is here to stay!

Lots of thoughts this week on the writer’s strike, and why we should all pay attention to it even if we’re not Writers Guild of America (WGA) members, or even if we’re not writers. Talking of which…

Why is the WGA strike important to those of us outside the US?

The WGA strike is the single most consequential union action that has been taken within the creative industries in recent years, with repercussions for all creative people in all countries, not just American TV and film. The US-based entertainment industry has global reach, and what Netflix, Amazon, Apple, Disney, Discovery-Warner, NBC Universal, Paramount and Sony do in America they will do everywhere else. The cowpaths they pave will be trodden by everyone else, inside and outside the film and TV industries.

Nowhere is this more true than in the area of AI, where the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP, ie the studios listed above) has simply refused to negotiate. Generative computing such as Midjourney or ChatGPT poses a genuine threat to writers and artists now, and that threat only going to become more severe as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

The WGA’s requests on AI are incredibly reasonable (The MBA is the Minimum Basic Agreement, ie the contract under which most WGA writers work.):

“Regulate use of artificial intelligence on MBA-covered projects: AI can’t write or rewrite literary material; can’t be used as source material; and MBA-covered material can’t be used to train AI.”

The WGA says that the AMPTP “Rejected our proposal. Countered by offering annual meetings to discuss advancements in technology.”

Meetings. Right. That’ll work.

The WGA cannot afford to lose on this point. Indeed, I think it’s more important than their requests regarding pay and residuals (ie, what TV writers get paid for repeats), because whilst low pay makes a writing career difficult, allowing studios to use computer generated content could eventually make writers obsolete. And giving in on this point would give a green light to every other creative industry to do the same – games, books, journalism, every company that relies on words and images likely has their eye on the results of this strike.

How the WGA strike affects writers in other countries

Given how interconnected the international TV and film industries are, and how normal Zoom writers’ rooms are these days, it should be no surprise to hear that international writers unions are standing up in very clear support of the WGA’s current strike action.

The Writers’ Guild of Great Britain (WGGB), the Australian Writers’ Guild (AWG) and the Writers’ Guild of Canada (WGC) have all said that their members should refuse to write on US shows whilst the strike continues. The WGGB also advises non-members to refrain from scab writing, because they will be refused membership in future:

“The Guild [WGA] does not have the authority to discipline non-members for strikebreaking or scab writing. However, the Guild [WGA] can and will bar that writer from future Guild membership.”

It’s absolutely essential that non-WGA writers don’t cross the (real or virtual) picket lines. All writers will benefit from a favourable end to this strike, so we all have to support those who are taking a hit to their income to stand up for everyone else’s rights. It doesn’t matter where you are in your career, this strike will have echoes that we’ll all hear.

The WGA’s AI stand-off is just the first of many

Generative computing (I really hate the term ‘AI’) is posing a risk not just to writers’ jobs. CNN’s coverage of the strike includes this piece about the impact that LLMs (Large Language Models) in particular will have on other industries.

“Goldman Sachs economists estimate that as many as 300 million full-job jobs globally could be automated in some way by the newest wave of AI. White-collar workers, including those in administrative and legal roles, are expected to be the most affected. And the impact may hit sooner than some think: IBM’s CEO recently suggested AI could eliminate the need for thousands of jobs at his company alone in the next five years.”

The article suggests that as well as copywriters and journalists, “digital artists, musicians, engineers, real estate professionals and customer service workers will all feel the impact of generative AI.”

If you’re in any of these industries, maybe now’s the time to join a union.

Other strike reads

There’s been so much good stuff written about the strike in the week since it started, but here are a few articles that have stood out for me:

Suw’s news: Fieldwork launches! Plus The Lacemaker and WAIW?

We finally have ethical approval to begin the research which will underpin Fieldwork, the short comedy film project that I’m working on with Dr Pen Holland and Prof Thorunn Helgason. You probably saw the introductory post pop into your email last week, and you can expect more updates this week as we start our search for participants.

I cannot tell you how excited I am by this. I’ve been quietly laying the groundwork for this project since November last year, after we came up with the idea last June. I absolutely love interviewing people, so I shall be delighted when the first participants pick an interview slot in my diary.

Meanwhile, I’ve had some lovely comments elsewhere about last week’s short story, The Lacemaker. It’s genuinely wonderful when someone says that something one has written has resonated with them, so thank you to those of you who reached out. If you enjoyed it, please do pop over to the Substack website and give it a little heart or leave a comment. It can be quite hard to persuade people to take a punt on an unknown author and every little bit of encouragement helps!

And finally, last week’s post over on Why Aren’t I Writing? was about opportunity costs – the things we lose when we choose not to write. Reframing our choice about whether to write or watch TV in terms of what we lose, and what Future Us would be grateful to Present Us for having done, can help us to find the motivation to sit down and write.

Obligatory cat picture

I can’t resist a silver tabby. This is a random cat that I met whilst out and about on 8 June 2014, just 22 days before I left the UK to move to Sheboygan, WI. My husband had been there since early February, and Grabbity and Sir Izacat Mewton made the trip late May, whilst I couch surfed and waited for my visa to come through.

I can’t quite believe that that was nine years ago, or that I’ve now been back in the UK for more than a year. How does time pass so quickly?!

All the best,


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