As TV Production Companies Rake In Profits, Employees Fight Wage Theft, Form Unions
Last winter,I reported for AlterNet on the struggle of workers at several companies that produce popular nonfiction TV shows like "Cash Cab" and "History Detectives" to join the Writers Guild of America, East, looking for better pay and health care benefits. At the time, I reported:
Conditions at these companies can be so bad, [Paula] Brantner [ executive director of Workplace Fairness] 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.
The Writers Guild has continued to organize these workers over the past 14 months, winning elections at LION TV and Optomen (both owned by a UK company, All3 Media). They're in the process of negotiating contracts for the workers at those two studios, but one of the companies AlterNet covered last year, ITV, is dragging its heels and fighting the union.
ITV's profits were up 14% last year, but according to the Writers Guild's Justin Molito, the company has spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting the union instead of just providing health care for its workers. The Writers Guild in the UK, Molito noted, was shocked to hear that UK companies were refusing to provide health benefits to employees in the US, and members picketed the studio's British office.
Meanwhile, the Writers Guild has also set up a website, nonfictionTVwagewatch.org, to help fight wage theft in the industry--a widespread problem, as I reported in January: "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. . . despite overtime laws that would say otherwise."
Molito told AlterNet that the continuing gains for the Writers Guild in the largely freelance, temporary field of nonfiction TV production will help to raise standards for the entire industry, as benefits and overtime pay become the norm. Even non-union workers will benefit. Of course, the companies are doing everything they can to fight that, but it's hard to argue, with record profits, that they don't have the cash to spare.