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A Group of Workers Corporate America Claimed Were Impossible to Organize Win Key Union Votes

Many of the freelancers who create your favorite TV shows have been toiling in white-collar sweatshops.

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 says.

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.

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