Reality Television Writers and the Future of Labor Organizing

Reality Television Writers and the Future of Labor Organizing

They write and produce popular reality television shows “American Eats” and “Cash Cab.” They are freelancers working unpaid overtime and paying for healthcare out of pocket while the big media bosses rake in the profits. They are fed up and getting organized.

The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) announced on Wednesday that hundreds of writers and producers of nonfiction basic cable shows are now campaigning for union representations at several television studios in New York City.

The WGAE, a union for entertainment workers, is forging new territory in labor organizing by developing new models of representation for this youthful set of urban creative workers.

The campaign has already gained momentum. In late 2010, writers and producers working for Atlas Media and ITV Studios voted to become the first reality television workers represented by the WGAE. ITV has appealed the union victory, but WGAE organizers expect the elections will soon establish collective bargaining agreements for about 150 workers at the two studios.

WGAE spokesperson Elana Levin told Truthout that the writers’ interest in organizing is good news for a labor movement that is struggling to find a future in an America with fewer industrial jobs than in the past. Urban creative professionals represent new and important demographics for the labor movement, and many are learning about the benefits of being organized for the first time.

Levin said the nonfiction television workers are often young, well-educated freelance workers who consider themselves white collar. Their chosen industry of entertainment and media produces uniquely American products and cannot be outsourced to other countries like jobs in other sectors of the economy.

“You can’t shoot ’30 Rock’ in India,” Levin said.

The writers and producers are freelancers, and many are “permalancers” who often work on the same show or in the same studio for years without receiving the benefits of full-time employment.

Levin said reality television writers first approached the WGAE in search of health insurance, but got motivated to unionize after learning about additional ways to hold their employers accountable.

“They showed hardcore enthusiasm after they saw the values of organizing,” Levin said.

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WGAE Organizing Director Justin Molito said that, as freelancers, it’s hard for the writers and producers to negotiate better pay and benefits as individuals.

“Collective bargaining is ready-made for this kind of work situation,” said Molito, who hopes the growing movement in New York City can make pensions, raises and affordable healthcare the norm for reality television writers and producers.

Molito said he hopes the new organizing models developed in television studios in New York will help the labor movement evolve to meet the needs of America’s skilled workforce.

The WGAE is also fighting “wage theft,” or the abuse of wage and hour law. The union has met with the US Department of Labor and will report the abuse of unpaid overtime clocked by writers and producers of nonfiction shows.

Reality television bosses are fighting back against efforts to organize writers and producers, Molito said. Studios often hire anti-union firms and tell workers that unionization will drain important resources.

Molito said that studio bosses have deeper coffers than they like to admit. Lion Television, for example, is a studio that produces shows like “Cash Cab: Las Vegas” in the US and several reality shows in Britain. WGAE is holding an election at Lion Television at the end of this week, but the studio bosses claimed that unionization could hurt the studio’s competitiveness.

Molito said the studio isn’t cash-strapped at all. Instead, it’s a moneymaking machine owned by a multinational private equity firm and designed to gouge its freelance workers.

Lion Television is owned by ALL3MEDIA, a British television company that is in turn owned by Permira, a multinational investment firm with $28 billion in investment holdings, according to the WGAE.

With the help of the WGAE, the writers and producers at Lion Television can now decide if they want to make reality television in a union shop.