Writers Guild Union Takes on the ‘Permalance’ Nonfiction TV Industry

Rose Arrieta

Work as a writer or producer for TV is seen by many as a glamorous, fast-paced, successful career. Writers who work on shows like Biography, or The First 48 for channels like the Discovery Channel or National Geographic has to be fabulous. Right? Well, maybe not.

Nonfiction TV has generally been regarded as the sweatshop of the entertainment industry. Everyone is permalance, there are no benefits, and unpaid overtime is almost universal,” says Elana Levin of the Writers Guild of America East (WGAE).

A permalancer” or, permanent freelancer, is a corporation’s dream.The company doesn’t have to pay out benefits on that person. The worker is hired on a contract basis, but becomes a full timer without the perks. It’s a standard practice,” Levin told In These Times. Many writers, producers and assistant producers cycle through several of these larger production companies that have a significant segment of the market. That’s why we are organizing across the nonfiction TV industry.”

The Writers Guild of America East has begun an effort — which has already found some success — to organize the hundreds of writers and producers in New York City working for nonfiction shows for basic cable. The Writers Guild of America, East, AFL-CIO, represents writers in motion pictures, television, cable, digital media, and broadcast news.

The workers are calling for health benefits, pensions and overtime pay — things that used to be standard for working America, but which have slowly deteriorated. 

Late last year, the writers of ITV Studios and ATLAS Media made WGAE history when they voted to be represented by the union. These writers work on The First 48, which airs on A&E and Dr. G, which airs on Discovery Channel. The union and management will soon be going to the bargaining table for about 150 workers.

Currently writers for LION TV are voting on whether to take the leap and go with the union. Our history as a Guild has shown that people working in television can improve working conditions and win benefits by coming together as a union. We look forward to a time when union representation is the norm in nonfiction basic cable, just as it is in most of the industry,” said WGAE Executive Director Lowell Peterson.

While the workers decide which way they want to go, WGAE is also focused on the problem of wage theft, which is the underpayment or non-payment of a workers wages. According to Interfaith Worker Justice, wage theft includes: violations of minimum wage laws; not paying time and a half overtime pay; forcing workers to work off the clock; workers not receiving their final paychecks; misclassifying employees as independent contractors to avoid paying minimum wage and overtime (as well as employers’ share of FICA tax); and not paying workers at all.

One commonly hears of wage theft cases involving farm workers and day laborers (as has been reported on this website), but there are others sectors of the work world being affected. They may not work in the fields, but these white-collar workers are still dealing with 60-hour workweeks and not getting paid for it.

In this industry, it’s as if overtime laws didn’t exist. It operates with total disregard for overtime law. Our workers consistently work over 12 hours per day,” Justin Molito, director of organizing for the WGAE told In These Times. It’s the accepted practice that employees will work 50- and 60-hour work weeks.”

He’s talking about writers working on shows many of us are familiar with, like History Detectives, which airs on PBS, and Cash Cab, both of which are created by production company LION TV. Much like the agriculture industry, which is notorious for the strategy of hiring contractors, who in turn, hire farm laborers to avoid being implicated in wage theft violations, the television industry often uses the same strategy, according to Molito.

The networks behind these shows are really complicit in this,” Molito says. They create pressure on the production companies to make these shows cheaper. By subcontracting out production they keep an arms length from responsibility to the employees.”

However, cautioned Molito, they aren’t an arms length for being liable to the workers.” The Guild, in fact, has a powerful new tool. That’s the new law signed in December by New York’s Governor David Patterson, which takes effect in spring. The Wage Theft Prevention Act amends the New York Labor Law by providing more protections for workers while increasing penalties for employers who drop the ball and fail to comply with the new requirements. 

The Guild has met with the Department of Labor and will document the abuse of unpaid overtime. As WGAE President Michael Winship noted in a statement:

We believe employees voted to join the Guild not only because they need health insurance, but because they seek respect and protection on the job, much as the many other freelance TV storytellers already in the union have done. Writers and other members of this creative community work in a part of the industry that continues to grow and prosper. They deserve to share in the profits of their hard work.

Rose Arrieta was born and raised in Los Angeles. She has worked in print, broadcast and radio, both mainstream and community oriented — including being a former editor of the Bay Area’s independent community bilingual biweekly El Tecolote. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is a freelance journalist writing for a variety of outlets on social justice issues.
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