Political Animal

Blog

May 05, 2013 3:44 PM Today in what’s wrong with the economy: full-time writers at a hit TV show who make $500 a week and enjoy no benefits

By Kathleen Geier

Over at Jacobin.com, Kurt Newman has written a really fascinating piece about the wage slaves of the E! reality television show, Fashion Police. The program, which stars Joan Rivers, is one the E! network’s most popular shows. And yet its writers, who work virtually full-time (30 to 40 hours per week), are paid a measly $500 a week — with no benefits.

Fed up with this degree of rank exploitation, the show’s writers got together and took an action that is rare and dramatic in any industry, let alone the entertainment biz: they engaged in a walk-out. Their strike, which began on April 13, is ongoing. The writers are demanding back wages and a union shop:

Twelve Fashion Police writers are seeking over $1 million in back wages from the show’s producers and Joan Rivers’s Rugby Productions. The Writers Guild of America-West’s statement alleges that the show “ignores the California laws that require an employer to pay hourly employees their regular wage rate for all time worked in an eight-hour period” and flouts the law requiring payment of overtime “for employment beyond eight hours in any workday or more than 40 hours in any workweek.”
Fundamentally, the Fashion Police writers are seeking to gain a union shop. The WGA-West has framed the strike as revolving around the question of E!’s open shop skullduggery: “There are two possible endings to this conflict. Either E! will agree to cover the writers under a Guild contract, or it will no longer benefit from the writing talents of the current staff of Guild members.”

The striking writers are very brave indeed, and their actions are downright inspiring:

For labor intellectuals who often reside in the intemperate zone that Jodi Dean calls “left melancholia,” it is a wonder to behold the resurgence of labor politics in a location that we usually presume to be a hotbed of toxic individualism. “Unions,” as [striking writer Eliza] Skinner stresses, “are our only hope for setting and maintaining standards, so that we can live off of our work.”

As the plight of these writers vividly demonstrates, blue collar types are not the only workers in our economy who stand to gain from unions. The white collar equivalent of the sweatshop is a reality, and white collar workers could also greatly benefit from the far stronger bargaining position that unions establish.

The Fashion Police writers’ situation also dramatically illustrates another urgent problem in our economy: workers are not getting anywhere near their fair share of the economy’s gains from productivity. In the U.S., between 1973 and 2011, productivity increased 80.4 percent, but the hourly compensation of the median worker grew by just 10.7 percent. This is one of chief causes of soaring economic inequality in our society.

The growing wedge between productivity and compensation is profoundly dangerous to our democracy. As John Maynard Keynes once said, “Nothing corrupts society more than to disconnect effort and reward.” And yet in our economy, that disconnect continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Short of revolution, the only way to put a stop to this is to empower workers. And the most effective institution we have to empower workers are labor unions.

I applaud the E! writers and wish them every success — as should every person who believes that workers are entitled to just compensation for the fruits of their labor. A campy reality TV show may seem like an unlikely staging ground for a workers’ revolution. But hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. And unless you’re one of 1%, their fight is your fight, too. Someone is making bank off that TV show, and it clearly is not the workers to whom it owes much of its success.

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee

Comments

  • Anonymous on May 05, 2013 5:33 PM:

    "The growing wedge between productivity and compensation is profoundly dangerous to our democracy. As John Maynard Keynes once said, 'Nothing corrupts society more than to disconnect effort and reward.'"

    But to state the very obvious which you all aleady know, the 1% that benefit with millions of dollars in salaries and the corporations they run have managed to do a snowjob on the working class with propaganda including directly to their employees and political contributions and lobbying, employing whatever dogwhistles they can, banking on the ignorance of poorly educated Americans.

    The wholesale sending of the profits of the rest of the economy to the CEO class and the financial sector in the past few decades is about the worst thing that has ever happened to this country.

  • jjm on May 05, 2013 5:36 PM:

    To @Anonymous: YOU SAID IT!

  • PTate in MN on May 05, 2013 7:07 PM:

    Anonymous: "The wholesale sending of the profits of the rest of the economy to the CEO class and the financial sector in the past few decades is about the worst thing that has ever happened to this country."

    Amen! I've read that wages and productivity kept pace until 1980 (***gosh, I wonder what happened then?***) and since then wages for most Americans have been flat and gains have gone to the top 1%. If the old relationship had been maintained, the average income of Americans would be $50K higher.

    It's a vicious cycle. The richer the rich get, the more wealth they have to spend on grabbing even more of the nation's wealth. Someday soon, perhaps enough Americans will become incensed that we can start voting in representatives who will rein in the plutocrats. Southerners, please, stop being so crazy.

  • howard on May 05, 2013 7:21 PM:

    my god, i'm going to have to watch the show so i can boycott it meaningfully!

  • esaud on May 05, 2013 7:52 PM:

    I am in the process of forming a union for my part time adjunct work. Wish me luck.

  • hamletta on May 05, 2013 8:23 PM:

    That's disappointing. Back in the '80s, I took a class in humor writing from a former humor editor at Playboy, who used to tell a story about how gracious Joan Rivers was to aspiring comedy writers.

    If somebody gave her a joke that she couldn't use, she'd take out her checkbook and write them a check for $10 (this was a long time ago, so it wasn't mere pocket change). She'd hand it to them and say, "Now you're a professional writer. Keep at it."

    I hope this dispute will be quickly resolved, and Ms. Rivers will give her writers their due.

  • smartalek on May 05, 2013 8:23 PM:

    "between 1973 and 2011, productivity increased 80.4 percent, but the hourly compensation of the median worker grew by just 10.7 percent. This is one of chief causes of soaring economic inequality in our society."

    With respect, I think this is an effect, not a cause.
    The causes are manifold, and there are several doctoral dissertations' worth of research awaiting anyone brave enough to try to tease them all out.
    But as Ms Geier clearly recognizes, one of them -- a major one -- is the demolition of the labor movement in general, and the unions in particular, which (as PTate in MN alludes to, above) has been one of the foremost efforts of the Publicans and their corporate masters since before the Reagan [counter]revolution.
    There are few fights more important to saving our country than re-energizing the unions, especially in the private sector.
    Watch out for how the corporate news media will try to.slant the reporting on this (if there is any at all) to portray the strikers as spoiled, overprivileged elitists...
    While next month, they'll again use the "proper payments to artists and creators" BS as the rationale behind the next attempt at restricting a free internet.

  • Rick B on May 05, 2013 9:17 PM:

    It's clear to me that one who merely owns property is NOT economically a creator of value.

    Someone who gets their income from labor has to work for it. Someone who gets their money from investments hires others to perform services. Which of the two has more power?

    Don't ask an economist. They operate entirely on theory based on financial transactions and infer from that who has power. The result is that economic theory is the theory of the flow of money only. Power has no similar theory to use to fool the public.

    But remember, power attracts money.

    The Bush brothers are the children of power. So are the Koch brothers. So is John McCain.

  • James M on May 05, 2013 9:55 PM:

    @PTate in MN on May 05, 2013 7:07 PM:

    "Anonymous: "The wholesale sending of the profits of the rest of the economy to the CEO class and the financial sector in the past few decades is about the worst thing that has ever happened to this country."

    Amen! I've read that wages and productivity kept pace until 1980 (***gosh, I wonder what happened then?***)"

    In addition to what PTate mentioned, lots of other things also happened in the 80s: almost all bad for the average worker:

    1. Globalization rapidly accelerated,creating the foundations of a global labor market.

    2. 'Shareholder Capitalism' the idea that the shareholders had the right to demand the predominant share of corporate profits, became the ascendant corporate economic theory for corporate America, leading to the birth of the mega-salaried superstar CEO whose mission was to boost the company's stock price.

    3. Advances in OA. Computers were introduced into the workplace, allowing companies to boost productivity and increase possibilities for eliminating headcount and reducing HR expenses.


  • mfw13 on May 05, 2013 10:49 PM:

    Umm...$500/week equates to $26,000/year, which is decent pay for a writing gig.

    Writers on shows like these are easily replacable since there are many other writers out there with similar skill sets, and therefore have little negotiating power.

  • ecnielsen on May 06, 2013 1:19 AM:

    $26,000 a year -- and that's assuming this show airs year-round, which I don't know -- is not a living wage in Los Angeles, nor is it particularly close. More to the point, it's not particularly close to the Writers Guild of America minimums, as stated in the article.

    I'd also strongly dispute that "there are many other writers out there with similar skill sets" -- in point of fact, there are not. These writers have not only talent but experience; they are not entry-level workers, and they are not unskilled workers. Far from it. I am sure there are some other people who could do the same job, but that's true of virtually any job -- and those other qualified people would also be writers with specialized talent and ample experience, who have earned a good paycheck.

  • Matt on May 06, 2013 2:12 AM:

    I applaud the E! writers and wish them every success as should every person who believes that workers are entitled to just compensation for the fruits of their labor.

    Well said, Ms. Geier.

    The Washington Monthly uses unpaid interns for work that is "predominantly" writing, and to write "for a higher education website and blog the Monthly will be launching when it releases its annual college guide issue."

    Upon beginning unpaid work, the interns are expected to begin "pitching and writing blog posts and, less frequently, full-length online articles," and possibly the print magazine as well.

    The unpaid work for the Washington Monthly also involves "seeking out and interviewing sources," and the intern must be capable of producing blog posts that "require little to no editing."

    But it's not all unpaid drudgery. They're also hiring an editor/reporter for anyone with the requisite qualifications and "a willingness to work long hours at low pay." That's a direct quote from their actual, current website, not that I'd blame anyone for thinking I was making that up.

    I can live with people who use unpaid and underpaid labor reporting on people who underpay their labor, but under the circumstances the high dudgeon about what those awful people over at E! are doing seems a bit misplaced.

  • smartalek on May 06, 2013 6:54 AM:

    Well, Matt, if you don't see the difference between one firm that pays little because they can't -- having scant resources -- and another that pays little because they won't -- despite having considerable resources -- the only question is, whether your inability to see is because you can't... or won't?
    Care to share, Matt?

  • octopus on May 06, 2013 8:10 AM:

    mfw13...


    Are you f*@&$ing kidding?

  • dalloway on May 06, 2013 9:19 AM:

    As a proud member of WGAw for 30+ years, a multiple Emmy winner and veteran of numerous strikes, I can tell you the media giants never give up nickel-and-diming the creative people that are the lifeblood of their business. CEOs like Les Moonves of CBS, who, according to the New York Times this morning makes 60 million dollars a year, are paid to schmooze and make deals that your average grad student could do as well. I've known Moonves since he was a go-fer and he couldn't write or produce a show if you put a gun to his head. But yeah, of course, union writers are the ones who are overpaid. This crap appalled me in Hollywood. Imagine my dismay to see it infect the rest of the economy.

  • Matt on May 06, 2013 10:52 AM:

    @Smartalek,

    I don't know anything about the Monthly's finances, other than what they claim when they ask me for money, and I suspect you don't either.

    I do know that unpaid internships are gruesomely unethical (but don't take my word for it when you can read The Washington Monthly), and that poverty doesn't excuse bad behavior.

    I also know that when you explicitly mention low wages in a job ad, you're sending a message: the work, or at least the workplace, is more important than the worker. Hey--if that's their editorial stance, okay. But then Kathleen Geier had better get with the program.

  • paul on May 06, 2013 11:39 AM:

    $500 a week with no benefits (an unpaid overtime at the boss's whim) is a worse deal than a grocery clerk.

  • smartalek on May 06, 2013 12:46 PM:

    Well, Matt, I know that they're a non-profit, and you either don't know that, or are pretending not to.
    So what you "suspect" would appear to be incorrect.
    I imagine that happens a lot.

  • Matt on May 06, 2013 2:08 PM:

    @smartalek,

    I know they're a not-for-profit, which is what lets them ask me for donation money. For that matter, so is the RNC. Having that particular tax status does not mean an organization is beyond reproach or criticism for their policies or their hypocrisy. Nor does not-for-profit status mean an organization is poor. Ask the Heritage Foundation, or Harvard--both of whom will be happy to accept your donation.

    As for the Monthly, I guess it comes down to what you're willing to accept in the name of progress. If you're comfortable with their use of unpaid interns, so be it.

    If you're comfortable with their use of unpaid interns only because, for all anyone knows, they might be teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, so be it.

    If you think the Monthly was wrong when it called out colleges (which are also not-for-profit institutions) for being morally "complicit in the exploitation of interns," so be it.

    If you think that a magazine which advertises the low pay of its own writers, but calls out a TV show for paying its writers low wages, isn't being hypocritical, so be it.

    Personally, I think it's all pretty awful for an ostensibly progressive media organization to be behaving this way, and I hope that saying something will in some small way help to change that. If, in the process, I've offended you... so be it.

  • MCD on May 06, 2013 2:36 PM:

    I've seen the show - my wife enjoys it. I find the "humor" to be low-brow and mean, which might be excusable if it was also funny. But it isn't, it's painful. I'm not sure these particular writers deserve more money, but if the show paid higher wages maybe they'd get better talent.

  • smartalek on May 06, 2013 3:21 PM:

    No, Matt, I'm not offended.
    Around here, as with other centrist and lefty sites, we're quite used to rightwingers and other visitors trying to change the subject or otherwise deflect conversations, especially when they're trying to defend the indefensible, answer unanswerable arguments, conceal rather than confront unpleasant realities, and so forth.
    And since most of us here are both aware of, and approve of, institutions that work for the improvement of our country, and in particular of our beleagured middle and working classes, against powerful, wealthy, entrenched and corrupt interests, and able to recognize the pertinent distinctions between same and highly profitable entertainment enterprises with little or no claim to "greater-good" benefit, I don't think any of our regulars would view your charges of hypocrisy as having much basis in reality, or relevance.
    Thanks for your concern, however.
    And if it earns you some high-fives around the PowerLine or FreePer precincts, so much the better; always happy to lend a helping hand.

  • Matt on May 06, 2013 4:24 PM:

    @smartalek:

    Well, I think you are offended, since the alternative would be that you're just trolling for trolling's sake. And if calling me a heretic and an impostor and a class traitor was meant to offend me, hey--mission accomplished. That'll always work, at least as long as the claim is false.

    But either way, it's still the skin of the people in charge of things at the Monthly that I'd rather be getting under. Or hearing from--hello? Anybody reading this? Any comment? It's your website, no reason you can't have the last word.

  • Anon on May 06, 2013 9:44 PM:

    Is writing a job paid by the hour? The article says that they "virtually work full time". It's probably only two or three days of work, in which case $26,000 isn't as atrocious as it's made to sound.

  • smartalek on May 07, 2013 9:20 AM:

    Well, Matt, I didn't call you any of those things -- but if the shoe fits... How was it you put it? "So be it," I believe?
    "The guilty flee when no man pursueth." -- Proverbs 28:1
    And if you're not just another winger troll, you've certainly got their can-dish-it-out-but-can't-take-it crybaby part down pat.
    Don't want to be taken for a whingeing winger? Try not acting like one.
    Cheers.

  • viagra_price on May 08, 2013 5:22 AM:

    Hello!
    viagra price