Why to Pay Attention to the Writer’s Strike

Writer’s Strike

We all are aware of the writer’s strike. This is not only a very, very sensitive topic for anyone who is a writer today, but more broadly will apply to all of us in the not-so-distant future. To that end, we need to have a candid conversation on this and we need it now. This is from the Wikipedia page for the 2023 Writer’s strike. If you can’t read this blurb and immediately understand the concern we should all have, then this article may not be for you.

“One disputed issue is the Guild wanting requirements for “mandatory staffing” and “duration of employment” terms to be added to their contract, which would require all shows to be staffed with a minimum number of writers for a minimum amount of time, “whether needed or not” per the AMPTP”

Well folks, I want a lot of things. I want to make it so work as we know it is not the driving focus of our collective worlds. I want a world where we can once again have a rational discussion with someone we disagree with without being cancelled, un-friended, blocked, screamed at, or punched in the face. That said, I have no more control over these wishlist items than the writers have on AI. Additionally, looking for someone else to provide you with job security is, well, illogical in 2023.

First, let’s get this out of the way. I have nothing against writers. As a creative myself, I have nothing but the utmost respect for well-crafted, well, anything; writing included. I also consume a fair bit of content that very talented (and sometimes not-so-talented) writers have created. Ted Lasso folks, Ted Lasso. The writing on that show was epic and should be deeply appreciated by everyone. But I digress.

I also have run a web design & development company for now 24 years. In that time I have watched this industry go from nothing-but-labor plays to make truly great websites to nearly 100% drag-and-drop to produce the same results. Each time another tool comes out that makes my job easier, by extension, it is making something I used to do (and get paid for) easier for non-professionals to do on their own (and stop paying me to do it). My job as a creative in that ecosystem is to provide ongoing proof of my value to our clients, not to convince them not to use tools that reduce their fiduciary obligations to marketing, streamline their workflows dramatically, or, in general, make their lives a whole lot easier.

In parallel to this, writers in this instance have a variable to contend with that I don’t. Netflix has had a 10x increase in revenue since 2011. Raking in 31.6 billion in 2022. My guess here is that there was room in that formula to be a bit more reciprocal to the folks that helped make that possible. Here is where writers start to be a bit more like web developers. It also illustrates why looking at these things in isolation is an antiquated mode of thinking.

I am not sure who to credit for this but at least since Uber, we have not only invented the term “gig worker” but have leaned in as a society on the gig culture as a whole. In almost every service industry out there we see gig workers popping up. Not coincidentally, we see a parallel to this in the corporate world with the explosion of individuals using words like “fractional” and “outsourced” in their titles. I know, and we work with, “fractional” everything these days as it simply makes more sense. Pay for what I use, when I use it. No more, no less.

Once upon a time, writing, just like all jobs, were actually “jobs” defined by set hours, set days, set roles. Where gig economies and fractional workers merge here is that the definition of “job” has fundamentally changed. And it changed fast. While no one could be blamed for resenting it, or even misunderstanding it, these rules no longer apply. Another claim from the strike is:

WGA claims that AMPTP’s share of such residuals has cut much of the writers’ average incomes compared to a decade ago.

A decade ago? This almost feels like a typo. Anyone looking to justify turning 2023 somehow back into 2013 is not only misinformed but also delusional. I could have charged 2x for development work a decade ago. Would that be nice to return to? Sure, who would say otherwise? Is it rational to expect the market to respond kindly to that request? Unequivocally not. For now though, the only “problem” is that we have not lived long enough post-gig worker to smudge the previous definition from our brains. No one believes in the value of a hard day’s work making buggy whips as we have not made those in over a century. We will get there with this too, just not soon.

Their request for “mandatory staffing” and “duration of employment” feel more like a request to provide job security than an actual valid concern. I too would like it if every company was forced to use me to make websites. It would be tremendous also if I could set mandates on how long that should take to do. In practice however, we see the opposite. Clients want the cheapest input for the maximum profitable output and in the shortest time possible. This isn’t me, a CEO of [insert corporate giant here], this is me looking around at the world and seeing what the vast majority is looking for. Fighting that is absurd no matter how much I stomp my feet and pout about it.

Said another way, networks and the like are viewing writers more as gig workers and contractors than staffers. To this end, they are not bound to anything long-term. While I recognize the arc of this story is riddled with nuance, not the least of which being the fact the writer’s guild punted this topic early on in the streaming days to allow networks time to figure this new medium out. The real issue is that writers thought “figuring it out” would end in a back-to-business-as-usual and the networks figured out that partial pay was better. This can hardly come as a shock as this writing was on the wall from day one. If you didn’t see it, that is not the same as it not being there.

AI has thrown another wrench in there too. Another request from the writers:

Writers also wanted artificial intelligence, such as ChatGPT, to be used only as a tool that can help with research or facilitate script ideas and not as a tool to replace them.[

AI and ChatGPT in particular are game-changers to be sure. They are so for everyone, not just writers. On what plane of existence do we think that AI won’t soon be capable of writing a script? It is illogical. We can banter all day about the quality of the script sure. That is valid and has made for several great conversations in my orbit. That said, these conversations are not meant to shape the tools we are discussing, but rather learn new ways to work with the tools to make better outcomes. Fighting to remove them seems to me to aim your wagon in the direction of the automated McDonalds kiosks. Remember when those workers went on strike? McDonalds replied by making it self-serve. While a bit more nuanced here, it is not science fiction and we should all be keenly aware of the stakes here.

While AI further complicates this equation to be certain, writers are not alone in this. The only difference is they are the only ones with a union to justify. I am not anti-union per se, but the unions in this case feel more like a senator talking to a tech CEO in a senate hearing. It is cringe-worthy and laughable that these are actual negotiation points given the environment. I recall the now infamous “Does the TikTok touch your home wifi network” dialogue with TikTok’s CEO Shou Zi Chew. I didn’t know if I should laugh or openly mock him or both. The questions reflected a massive misunderstanding of what they were even talking about and this is no different.

Consider this. In the same once upon a time as above, we used to need to go to school to learn something, work for years to hone that something, and then trade that experience for money. It was how the world worked. Mashup the gig economy and AI and we can paint a clear picture that this is nowhere near where we operate today. I don’t need years of experience, or thousands of dollars in legal fees, to write a simple contract anymore. AI will churn that out, change in real time as I need it to, and I can pay a fractional contract lawyer for an hour of work to verify it holds ground. Is the lawyer angry? Likely. Will every lawyer today decide to take that job? For sure not. Is there a 20-something lawyer looking for a way to fit into this new world going to jump at this? No doubt. And is there yet another 20-something already crafting a corporate empire catering only to this? If you don’t think so, you are not paying attention.

In the end, while I sympathize with the sudden loss of a job, and I do, I can’t help but to think this is all aiming in the wrong direction. If I am looking for payment, ask for what you think you are worth. As an employer I will weigh your perspective or world view, your past work, your asking wage, and my overall budget to make that determination. Some will hire you. Some will not. That is the way this economy works. Fighting to move it somewhere else at this point is a waste of your time and efforts. AI will create thousands of “woe is me” scenarios in the upcoming years. This is not something to run away from but to run towards. AI will force one thing above all else – clarity of thought. Just as a prompt is only as good as the person annunciating it, so will be the outcome of all of our lives’ “work”, regardless of how we classify that.

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