Union busting is not new. Corporations with enough money and inclination have employed many dirty tactics to break a union organizing campaign.
However, the tactics being waged against television writers fighting for benefits and membership in the Writers Guild of America (WGA) are unique. Writers who work for shows that fall under the dubiously titled category “Reality TV” have faced an uphill battle in the struggle for labor rights.
The clear shift in the last few years from traditional programs to reality TV programming on major networks is in part due to its cheaper production costs.
Utilizing average people, in search of their 15 minutes of fame, as primary protagonists, the production companies are able to forgo the salaries typically paid to union performers. The companies have also sought to skimp on writers.
However, it is clear that writers play an indispensable role in such productions. They write the script for the host, they frame the story and decide which subjects to focus on in any given episode. Character development and chronology are also part of their role in the show’s development.
This process has been made clearer to the public with the “Survivor” show re-shoots controversy, and other reality show contestants confessing that they were coached during interviews as part of the production.
The reality check here is that reality TV is nothing more than a ploy to keep labor costs down and to keep writers from having a basis to join a union.
Last year, writers on “America’s Top Model,” a show produced by celebrity model Tyra Banks about women competing for a modeling contract, called for a strike to protest being denied the right to join the WGA. They were subsequently fired. They received absolutely no support from Banks herself. The show’s managers used the excuse that reality TV does not fall under the category of other traditional employment for writers.
“Tyra Banks the union buster” is merely the tip of the iceberg in an industry that is systematically stripping away the labor rights of its talent community and trade workers.
The contract negotiations between the WGA and the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers are set for July. It is most likely that the union will demand greater jurisdiction over reality shows. The WGA is known for its militancy.
This struggle continues.