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IATSE Agreement Clears the Way to Use Artificial Intelligence as a Tool

Katcy Stephan / Variety

Artificial intelligence can be used as a tool, with some limitations, under the agreement struck last week between the major studios and the union representing film crews.

The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees released further details of its contract over the weekend. The deal provides that workers may ask their employers for a “consultation” about AI use, that a committee will be set up to offer AI skills training, and that AI use cannot be outsourced to non-union labor.

Making the “tool” analogy explicit, the deal provides that if the worker uses their own AI system, they can charge a “kit rental fee” — the same as they would for sound recording equipment or some other employee-owned gear.

IATSE contracts already provide for severance pay and retraining if a member loses their job due to “technological change.” That language would apply to job losses incurred as a result of AI. The new contract adds language that no employee will be forced to input prompts that displace other union workers.

The role of AI was a major theme of last year’s strikes by the Writers Guild of America and SAG-AFTRA. In the end, both unions got deals that give creators control over how they use AI — within company policies — and guarantees that AI use will be compensated.

The IATSE terms are somewhat different, in part because the union is bargaining on behalf of a broad range of disciplines — from hair stylists and boom operators to editors and cinematographers.

The terms do provide one protection that parallels the SAG-AFTRA deal: IATSE workers must give separate consent to any AI scanning, and scanning cannot be a condition of employment.

The union is set to hold a series of town halls with members to answer questions ahead of the ratification vote.

From the start of talks nearly four months ago, the union has made clear that it sees AI as a tool with potential upsides for workers.

“Sometimes new jobs are created with new technology,” Matt Loeb, the union’s international president, told Variety in February. “My hope is that some of the efficiencies and/or advantages of AI will filter down to the crews.”

Under the deal, the employers retain the right to bar employees from using AI in their work. If they do permit the use of AI, employers will indemnify workers from legal liability, except in cases of “gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

The agreement also provides for quarterly meetings with individual employers to discuss AI, and bi-annual meetings with the studio group, as needed.

The AI terms were resolved well before the end of negotiations last Tuesday. The final issues to fall into place were the funding streams for the benefit plans and general wage increases.

The union was able to negotiate a 7% increase in the first year, followed by increases of 4% and 3.5%. And the health and pension funds will benefit from new streaming residuals. Overall, the employers agreed to provide more than $700 million in increased funding for the plans, to cover a significant shortfall caused by the pandemic and the twin strikes.

The deal provides that there will be no increases in health care costs for employees or their dependents, and no reduction in health benefits, the union stated in its summary of the terms.

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that the contract does not provide severance for job losses due to AI. Existing contracts provide severance pay for job losses due to “technological change,” and AI would fall under that category.

Variety's Gene Maddaus contributed to this post.

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