A Group of Workers Corporate America Claimed Were Impossible
to Organize Win Key Union Votes
By Sarah Jaffe,
Posted on January 10, 2011, Printed on January 11, 2011
Organized labor's latest victories are coming in a field
where no one expected unions to make gains: freelance writers
and producers in nonfiction television. The Writers Guild of
America, East, has won two notoriously difficult National
Labor Relations Board elections in favor of creating unions
at ITV Studios and Atlas Media, companies that contract
workers for popular TV shows such as "Dr. G: Medical
Examiner" and "The First 48."
With another election pending, for workers who help create
"Cash Cab" and PBS's "History Detectives," it appears the
Guild is having success doing the impossible.
And that's a big lesson, because freelancers are a large, and
growing, part of the workforce. 'More than 25 percent of all
working Americans are, whether they want to be or not,
temporary laborers, and that number will surely rise in the
coming years,' wrote Richard Greenwald for In These Times.
That means that they survive from job to job, contract to
contract, often with no idea where their next paycheck is
coming from-and certainly no pension fund, 401K or benefits.
'The main thing we can learn from this campaign is that it
can be done, freelance employees can organize, freelance
employees can win benefits,' says Justin Molito, director of
organizing at the Writers Guild.
Unionizing these workers has been difficult not just because
of practical issues like the lack of a central workspace. 'I
think one of the barriers is almost mental and psychological.
This is a group of workers who believed that for
professionals or white-collar workers, unions are not
appropriate or unions would inhibit their freedom,' says
Paula Brantner, executive director of Workplace Fairness.
Freedom and fulfillment are the promises of working in a
creative field like television, says a freelance producer who
wishes to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. 'Because you
love it, every once in a while you're willing to put in a
late night -- it's a labor of love,' she notes, but when
those late nights and weekends become the norm it's a
different story. When workers sign a contract with companies
like ITV and Atlas, they receive a weekly paycheck no matter
how few or how many hours they work. A five-day week pays the
same as a seven-day week, she says-despite overtime laws that
would say otherwise.
Conditions at these companies can be so bad, Brantner says,
that 'a lot of them could be considered white-collar
sweatshops, with people working insane hours, having no
control over deadlines or the amount of pressure, the amount
of production on a particular day.' The former freelance
producer notes, 'It's a very young industry, you can't
sustain this lifestyle and have a family.' And yet, she
points out that the lack of benefits forces workers to rely
on parents or spouses for health insurance, or live in fear
of illness or pregnancy.
Companies like ITV and Atlas hire workers on contracts for
several months or even years at a time, and they receive a
W-2 tax form rather than a regular freelancer's 1099, which
makes it harder for them to purchase individual health
insurance. Insurers expect workers to show a 1099, and when
presented with a W-2, often say that the employer should
provide insurance. Individual insurance plans have sky-high
rates with little benefit, and so many freelancers are unable
to pay for coverage.
'As cool as the job may be, people want those basic things
that other people within the industry already have,' Molito
The freelance economy seems to fit into the American ethos of
do-it-yourself individualism, the bootstrap mentality that
John Boehner touts in teary-eyed interviews, but it has more
benefits for the companies that use the workers than it does
for workers themselves. 'This model is no mistake. This is a
model that is being executed intentionally by multinational
corporations to extract the maximum profit from people's
labor,' Molito says.
But as many have pointed out, keeping workers unstable and
always looking out for their next paycheck has its downside,
not only for the workers themselves, but for those who depend
on them. 'It's harder to be relaxed and creative, capable of
performing your best work if you're worried about how how
you're going to get by,' Brantner notes.
And so despite what Molito calls an orchestrated effort to
demonize unions, the effects of which are being felt across
the country, producers who have worked for several companies
in nonfiction television approached the Writers Guild for
help in organizing. The Guild has experience in organizing
freelance workers, and found that within NLRB rules, it was
possible for workers who have been employed by these
subcontractors in the past to vote in the union
election-making it harder for bosses to intimidate them, and
creating a larger pool of potential votes.
When the workers have won their union, the next step is to
push for enforcement of wage and hour laws, and job
security-a top priority in the current economy. Benefits like
health insurance also are on the top of the workers' wish
list. 'If the people who own these companies would wish to
give benefits to the people that are making their profits,
WGA health insurance is actually a really good deal for
them,' the freelance producer points out.
She would also like for the cable networks, like Discovery
Channel, SyFy and Spike, which subcontract out the work on
their shows, to take some responsibility. 'They need to know
that the people who are making the TV that is some of the
most popular television in the country don't have benefits,
are afraid of hurting themselves, are working around the
In the end, victories in these fields can have ramifications
far outside of a few nonfiction television companies in New
York. Freelancers are concentrated in a few industries-in New
York, according to the Freelancers Union, mostly in the
media, entertainment and technology sectors. Strategies for
organizing freelance workers across an industry rather than
company by company can be adapted and applied across a
changing, atomizing, temporary workforce. With the number of
temporary workers only going up as the economy stays
tentative and unemployment high, now more than ever it's
worth looking at ways to improve conditions for those
Says Molito, 'This is a comprehensive campaign to raise the
standards for an industry.'
[Sarah Jaffe is a freelance writer and web manager/senior
writer with GRITtv with Laura Flanders.]
(c) 2011 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/149476/
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