Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Freelancers Gain Union Recognition with WGAE

by James Parks

The Writers Guild of America, East (WGAE) has brought union representation to a growing group of workers who do not fit the traditional union model: freelance writers and producers who work on nonfiction TV shows.

WGAE won two tough National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) elections covering 150 workers at ITV Studios and Atlas Media, companies that contract workers for such popular nonfiction TV shows as “Dr. G: Medical Examiner” and “The First 48.” Another election is set for workers who help create “Cash Cab” and PBS’s “History Detectives.”

Helping freelance workers join a union is becoming increasingly important in today’s economy. More than 25 percent of all workers are in temporary jobs and the number of temporary workers is going up. Freelancers want the same as do other workers: fair pay, good benefits and respectful treatment on the job, says Justin Molito, WGAE’s organizing director.

The freelance economy is being used intentionally by multinational corporations to extract the maximum profit from people’s labor, Molito says.

Because freelance workers are dispersed and employed by different companies at different times, reaching out to them requires more than a traditional organizing approach, says Molito. WGAE launched a comprehensive campaign to improve conditions throughout the industry, rather than a company by company approach. Many of WGAE’s current members are freelancers, so the union has experience in helping them form unions, he says.

Companies like ITV and Atlas hire workers on contracts for several weeks or even months at a time and expect them to work 50 hours a week or more without overtime pay, Molito says. Most do not have any benefits. 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.

So one of the first things the new union members will do is to push for enforcement of wage and hour laws, and job security and to gain benefits like health insurance. Says Molito:

This is a comprehensive campaign to raise the standards for an industry. It is important to try and make direct improvements in these workers’ lives.

Non-fiction writers and producers at Atlas Media and ITV Studios recently voted in favor of WGAE representation. Organizing writers and producers for production companies can be a difficult endeavor due to many of the jobs being freelance or temporary.

WGA-East Executive Director Lowell Peterson spoke with the Workers Independent News (WIN)  to explain how such organizing drives are unique: "In this case people are temporary at particular shops, but tend to stay in the industry, so communicating with them isn’t as difficult as it would be in some other industries."

" When we’ve done these NLRB elections we’ve won the right to have people that are not currently employed at the shop vote in the election. If you’ve worked at the shop for a certain number of weeks, sometimes a lot of weeks, prior to the election you’re eligible to vote. That’s a recognition that some people do cycle through and you might work for an ITV in January, not work for them for six months and than work for them again."

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