As featured on p. 218 of "Bloggers on the Bus," under the name "a MyDD blogger."

Sunday, May 08, 2005

It's the Unions, Stupid

I've given this a lot of thought, and I've come to the conclusion that the return of the Democratic Party to prominence and the rise of the labor movement from the ashes of deregulation and union-bashing will be inextricably linked. I made this realization when I signed my first union card.

People don't realize that the reason the Hollywood "Left" has such a Democratic leaning is because we have such strong labor unions. I work here, in television, on a series of nonfiction shows. I guess the genre could charitably be called "reality," though at a very low level (basically if there's a channel on the highest part of the digital cable dial, the chances are good that I've worked for it).

Yes, a lot of reality television is slipshod, exploitative and dumbed-down. But people don't understand that the rank-and-file who work in it are often being as exploited as the contestants. Reality is big because of its low costs, mainly because, unlike scripted shows, it is not unionized. This has become a bargaining chip for the networks in their dealings with the Writer's Guild, Director's Guild, and others: take our crappy contract, or we'll just make more reality shows.

Reality show workers make less than their counterparts in scripted TV. They work largely on weekly salaries, usually for no overtime, yet during stressful parts of production 16-hour days and weekend work are all too typical. Their credits are so amorphous that they bear no relation to the actual job worked. If a reality show is sold to another network for use in reruns, none of the workers see any residual fees. They have no employer-paid health care or pensions, and as freelancers on short-term assignments, they have little or no job security. 1 out of every 3 TV and film industry professionals are out of work on any given day in Hollywood (just go to a coffee shop at 2:30 on a Wednesday for proof).

This probably sounds whiny to many, and actually, it should. Most of these people are well-paid for the work that they do. Of course, that's mainly because of the power of collective bargaining. The sundry labor unions have forced Hollywood to share its profits with its employees, with very few exceptions. But while reality television workers do benefit from that to a degree, they are the crack in the dike that allows the networks to cash in.

Well, the Writer's Guild is doing something about it. I and about 600 reality writers and editors attended a presentation yesterday with the purpose of organizing across the board in affiliation with the Writer's Guild of America. Fiction writers and producers are aligning themselves with this effort because they know that unity breeds management concessions. At the end of the meeting I gave a written commitment allowing the WGA to negotiate on my behalf.

A few decades ago 1 in 3 households had a union member. Today it's 1 in 10, and that's reflected in the current Congressional breakdown, in my opinion. It's a lot easier to make the case that the Republican middle class votes against their economic interests when, in their daily lives, they are organized and can see how their economic interests are increased by that power. Whether in reality television or at Wal-Mart, no matter if the job pays a lot or a little, we should be supporting the labor movement at every opportunity. Labor gives so much material support during election seasons, in volunteers and resources. They allow their workers to viscerally understand core economic issues, and apply them to the political arena.

Republicans know this and have gutted the labor movement over the last 50 years. Democrats, particularly the ones in the pocket of corporate interests, have been all too willing to help them. Reclaiming the labor mantle (and applying it globally, in solidarity with the working poor not only in America but in the other countries that affect our job security and economy) is crucial to reclaiming power in Washington.