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.
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 clock.'
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 workers.
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.]