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SAG-AFTRA: We want to exhaust every option "without having to pull the trigger on a strike"

Duncan Crabtree-Ireland and Sarah Elmaleh tell us why AI protection for performers is holding up negotiations, and why the union is "not leaving any members behind"

It's now been eight months since SAG-AFTRA members voted in favour of a strike authorisation in the games industry due to stalling negotiations over the Interactive Media Agreement.

The bargaining has been ongoing since October 2022 with companies including Activision, EA, Epic Games, Insomniac, WB Games, and more – all firms working with actors on voice and motion performances for video games.

While SAG-AFTRA has not moved forward with its strike as of yet, dialogue reached a bit of a dead end soon after the authorisation was approved, and the parties have still not reached an agreement. Despite progress elsewhere – for instance, with Replica Studios over ethical use of AI voice work – negotiations over the Interactive Media Agreement feel like they're almost at a standstill despite several rounds of bargaining.

"The line is drawn very clearly in the sand around AI as an issue," says Sarah Elmaleh, voice actor (Anthem, Where the Water Tastes Like Wine), and chair of the Interactive Media Agreement negotiating committee at SAG-AFTRA. "We both brought a number of proposals to this package, and we resolved those over many months of bargaining, and things have really narrowed, focused, and scoped to the issue of AI, and whether the bargaining group is willing to extend protections comprehensively to all members and performers within SAG-AFTRA."

SAG-AFTRA executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland tells us there's been proposals back and forth in the past couple of months between the union and the companies, in particular regarding AI.

Sarah Elmaleh, voice actor and SAG-AFTRA's chair of the Interactive Media Agreement negotiating committee

"But unfortunately, as Sarah alluded to, the core issue hasn't been resolved," he continues. "And that core issue, if you really boil it down to its essence, is that, as a union, our expectation and our demand is that all of our members be protected with respect to AI. There are fundamental protections that we expect to see in all of our collective bargaining agreements, with all of our employers, and that need to protect all of our members."

While the companies have agreed to "many, if not all, of those protections," Crabtree-Ireland explains that some "have refused to extend them to all of [SAG-AFTRA] members who are working under those contracts."

"And as a union, we're not leaving any of our members behind in the process of negotiating these kinds of protections. And frankly, these protections shouldn't be that difficult to agree to. They're basic."

He points to the long road SAG-AFTRA had to travel to reach similar agreements with film studios and streaming companies last year, with a five-month strike eventually leading to setting guidelines around AI use, among many other things.

"Since that time, we've negotiated these types of protections with the major record labels without having to go on strike, we've negotiated them with the TV animation companies without having to go on strike, we've achieved them in other agreements like the Replica Studios agreement [around] video game voice replication, and we've embedded them in the new tiered Interactive Media Agreement. And since that time a number of companies have signed to those agreements.

"So it continues to mystify me why there is such sort of aggressive resistance to providing just basic protection, respect, and comfort to people so that, when they go to work, they're not putting themselves out of a job by enabling a company to use them to compete with themselves for the next job. It shouldn't be so difficult."

When trying to understand why SAG-AFTRA is met with such resistance from game studios, Crabtree-Ireland says some might have a "philosophical mindset about AI."

"They want to make a battle maybe because they're scared about what the future of AI brings for their own companies and they don't want to commit to something," he says. "I understand that, especially in the generative AI area.

"It continues to mystify me why there is such aggressive resistance to providing basic protection"Duncan Crabtree-Ireland
SAG-AFTRA executive director and chief negotiator Duncan Crabtree-Ireland

"For example, one of the areas we've been challenged in bargaining over is the question of limitations on inputs for training data and AI models. But that's not what we're fighting over in this negotiation. So let's be clear, we're not talking about their ability to remain competitive with other AI companies that are outside of this bargaining group, because that's not what we're talking about. What's at issue with this negotiation is not inputs into training data. What's an issue in this negotiation is the idea that when a performer is engaged to work for these companies, that there should be limits on the use of that work without consent, without fair compensation, by the use of AI in subsequent projects and things like that.

"It's a very specific kind of protection that's unique to performers in a lot of ways and is entirely consistent with what we've sought and achieved with these other big companies – ironically several of which are owned by the same parents as studios and streamers who've agreed to those very provisions in film and television work."

Crabtree-Ireland mentions that the principles SAG-AFTRA has been fighting for have had a lot of public support, including "from people who normally don't like unions at all," he laughs.

He mentions the recent issue between Scarlett Johansson and OpenAI, with the company allegedly stealing the likeness of her voice for use in ChatGPT. While the firm refuted the accusations, the actress revealed that she had repeatedly been approached by the company to lend her voice to the chatbot, but declined. Crabtree-Ireland points to the fact that the actress had an immediate outpouring of public support, adding: "I think companies are running a real risk if they underestimate how the public will react to them not treating workers fairly in the context of AI."

Elmaleh emphasises that Johansson's plight highlights a less-discussed risk that AI presents for performers.

"There's this scenario where you go to work and are actively providing material that could potentially be used to replace yourself, which is terrifying. So that scenario must be accounted for, again, for all performers, and some partial coverage has been gained so far there, but it's a question of not leaving anyone behind.

"However, the other potential [aspect] that needs to be accounted for, and that we have in our proposals that has been repeatedly rebuffed, is around that scenario where, in this case they ask – it was really less of an offer than a threat – Scarlett and be like, 'Hi, we'd like to hire you to do this' and she said no, and then [they] turn around and simply get something approximate out of a generative AI system, without her ever having provided those materials in the course of her work with them.

"And so the question of prompting a system and asking it to invoke a performer based on a character that they're known for, or based on their name itself in a way that's really recognisable and obvious inspiration, that scenario also really needs to be accounted for. And that one we are still looking for really significant movement on."

With AI protection for all SAG-AFTRA members being the primary delay to the negotiations, we ask the pair whether a strike is getting more and more likely.

"There may be a point soon, if not where we're at now, where those proposals are looking similar coming back and forth, or the changes or the progress is looking slimmer and more marginal, at which point you're questioning: are we moving towards a deal or not?" Elmaleh says.

"The question of prompting a system and asking it to invoke a performer... really needs to be accounted for"Sarah Elmaleh

"And then at that point further pressure needs to be applied. The pressure applied by the strike authorisation yielded more results, and so we've been working with that, and then building other strategies… But when productivity kind of runs out in that process, then further pressure needs to be applied."

Crabtree-Ireland says he finds it hard to see how SAG-AFTRA would compromise on protection for all its members, which is what could eventually could lead to a strike.

"What needs to happen in order for this to move forward and us not to end up on strike against these companies is for them to revisit their resistance and their insistence on sort of splitting off our members and protecting some and not others – that's how this ultimately gets resolved," he says.

"So at this point, I would say there is a really real possibility that's trending towards probability that we will be on strike against them in the next 30 to 45 to 60 days. We want to exhaust every opportunity to try and resolve these things without having to actually pull that trigger on a strike."

Unionisation has historically been lagging behind in games, with workers in the industry slowly catching up with protections that are more standard in film. When we mention that reality and ask what needs to change for games to reap similar benefits, Elmaleh says she's interested to see what will come out of the current situation.

"There is a real possibility that's trending towards probability that we will be on strike in the next 30 to 45 to 60 days"Duncan Crabtree-Ireland

"The truth of any sort of basis of a union is that you have to resist," she says. "Corporations don't give things. Employers don't give things without resistance. To come into that awareness as a worker that you have something that they need, and that it is leverage that can be applied effectively – and has been proven to be applied effectively through collective action throughout history – is an awareness you need to step into and really take ownership of it. It takes a fight.

"But what precipitates a willingness to fight is the kind of situation that we're in now. The layoffs have been absolutely brutal. That sense that sustainability isn't a priority for some of these folks… that the people who are currently deciding how things are run may no longer be acting in your interest, or that it will take a certain degree of frustration, disillusionment with the system that exists currently, and a willingness to build a new system… Unfortunately for some people, I think it takes a really dark, difficult moment like this to be like, 'You know what? I'm ready to try and really fight to make this look different for everyone's benefit'."

Crabtree-Ireland adds that a lot of employers have an outdated view of what it means to work with unions, and that it's not about disrupting business operations.

"It's the contrary," he says. "We want that to happen. We just want it to happen under terms that are fair, equitable, and respectful to the creative talent that's essential to their success."

Another outdated view is the idea that workers raise issues because they don't care about their work. Here again, it's the opposite.

"For anyone who's still labouring under that: it's not true," Elmaleh says. "It's just that companies may not have the mandate of individual worker career sustainability and longevity in mind. That's not part of their goal set. If you love this work, you want to do it for a long time, you want it to be sustainable, and it is therefore required, just out of the forces of nature, for a counter force to advocate for that, and to really stand firm with that perspective in mind… So I think for folks who are looking at this as a big nasty fight: it's really just about setting a boundary."

"For folks who are looking at this as a big nasty fight: it's really just about setting a boundary"Sarah Elmaleh

Looking ahead, both hope for an agreement to be reached, via a strike if needs be. Crabtree-Ireland leaves us with a thought on what could lie beyond that agreement, especially when thinking about the future of AI.

"We can all see that AI is going to continue to evolve," he points out. "And that means that our contract, terms, and provisions that relate to AI are also going to continue to evolve.

"And in fact, with the pace of evolution of AI, we've seen the evolution of our agreements actually happen quickly, even since last November, when we finalised the deal with the studios and streamers. Once this contract issue is resolved, my vision is that the companies realise that the best way for us to deal with that evolution is a continual process of collaboration and working together to find that path that is appropriate, respectful, protective, and human-centred, as far as AI evolution goes.

"And that, as challenging and as difficult as this particular negotiation process has been, that it doesn't have to be replicated going forward because we can see how there is a path into the future where we work together."

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Marie Dealessandri avatar
Marie Dealessandri: Marie joined in 2019 to head its Academy section. A journalist since 2012, she started in games in 2016. She can be found (rarely) tweeting @mariedeal, usually on a loop about Baldur’s Gate and the Dead Cells soundtrack. GI resident Moomins expert.
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