theintercept | nearly half of all programming on broadcasting and cable is unscripted, moving Hollywood away from its labor roots.
Those producers, editors, and writers who transform thousands of hours of footage into something coherent, if not watchable, are typically contract employees who move from job to job, none lasting more than a few months (this makes union organizing extremely difficult). Independent production companies create and sell the shows to the networks, and their profits increase with how much they can exploit their workers. Freelancers get no health care or pension benefits, vacation or sick days, and often no overtime, amid hazardous field conditions. Time sheet falsification and wage theft run rampant.
Perhaps most important, your future career depends on good working relationships with production companies and supervisors. If Mark Burnett threatens to prevent you from working again if you cross him, that’s a credible threat, since employees find their next jobs through recommendations and repeat business. Even though staffers could have leaked material anonymously, the risk of ending their careers loomed larger, because nobody in the industry is looking out for the individual worker, who competes with hundreds of others to land a gig. Blackballing in such an environment is simple.
Unions can protect workers from blackballing threats by raising grievances. They can ensure the fairness of contracts like confidentiality agreements. They can police industries on behalf of workers. Their absence pushes all the power to producers like Burnett, which can collude on wages and threaten workers to bring them to heel.
The lack of bargaining power for nonunion contract workers has become a hallmark of the U.S. economy. New research from Harvard’s Lawrence Katz and Princeton’s Alan Krueger finds that 94 percent of the 10 million jobs created in the Obama era were temporary, part-time, or “gig economy” positions. This hands tremendous power to employers to dictate terms of employment, and to even break the law, without pushback. And blackballing threats are perhaps the quintessential example.
Threats that “you’ll never work in this town again” should not have been an impediment to anonymous leaking of material on Trump that someone may have considered in the public interest. The fact that it was, that people didn’t think their identities would remain hidden and that their career would end, speaks to the climate of fear that grips the unscripted TV industry. And it increasingly characterizes the U.S. workforce, where the boss has disproportionate power and control.