Thursday, December 13, 2007

The Medium Is The Message

Many in the business world or right wing nut jobs (not that they are mutually exclusive) would have you believe that unions are an anachronism of a past Industrial Age. Hate to have to tell you this but collective bargaining and action are alive, well and seemingly getting stronger.

First there was the recent unpleasantness on Broadway. The "New Economy" and its adoration of the investor met an old-line craft union. Generations of relationships with the direct employers and the people who make them their money were tossed aside in pursuit of short term profit by, in essence, the renters of the employers property. The Producers resented the symbiotic relationship required of everyone in the communal art form that is theatre. Wharton School of Business doesn’t have a theatre department, which would have taught the students that Gordon Gecko was a fictional character in an art form designed to create illusions, the movies. Or perhaps it’s a knee jerk reaction to the liberal part of liberal arts. But I digress.

For those “New Economy” folks, what has happened in Times Square this week could be even more foreboding than an old union winning a strike against concessions. The creative types that Viacom exploits to sell its teen oriented products got tired of being punching bags for the bottom line and took to the streets in collective action. The use and abuse of those employees defined as freelancers, part time, independent contractors or long-term temps is an aspect of labor relations that the “New Media” relies on. Workers are viewed as a drag on profits and a managerial headache. Not only are office workers not viewed as a valued employee or even as a human but rather a disposable component of a multinational whole.

On Monday Viacom and MTV employees demonstrated a new willingness to take on the boss when Viacom bean counters, chasing the corporate mantra of getting more for less, starting another round of swapping around benefit plans in order to get less for less. The result would be that these permatemps would have to wait even longer for benefits. Oh, and another new paper employer, Cast and Crew that would keep the workers at a legal arms length. This kind of employer is a service common in the entertainment business where events are short term affairs and the contractor allows the service to do the back office tax and payroll duties. Large corporations, however, use them as a way to avoid paying benefits and reduce their own back office staff. Contract Out Everything 101 is a freshman requirement at Wharton.

While the anger is real and the needs great, the lack of several generations of protest and organizing became evident at MTV. This generation may have music videos, the Internet and You Tube; the loss of schooling in the history of social upheaval became evident, as did the fear that controls the work place. Where the stagehands refused to talk to the press it was because of the their personal knowledge of how the press twists the truth to fit a preconceived message that the front office wants to hear (every go to a show in preview and then read the review?). The writers and animators and assistants where not giving their names out of fear of retribution. “You want benefits and job security? I can hire the next college kid that walks in the door who would love to work here. What are you some kind of troublemaker?” So they demonstrated on their lunch hour.

Freelancers Walk Out at MTV Networks

But it worked. They attracted a get deal of attention; keep the pressure up and Viacom caved.

MTV to Let Freelancers Stay on Its Insurance

Anyone from the Sixties could have told them they would. They would know that it is people on the streets that get attention and not this load that was issued by Viacom.

"As you know, we’ve been holding information sessions over the past several days to discuss our freelance and temporary employee benefits. We’ve had many insightful conversations and heard a number of your specific concerns.

As a result of the input you’ve given to us directly through the sessions and your managers, we want to announce the following changes:"

Information sessions, my ass. It was your employment practices in the spotlight that did it. Left to your own devices nothing would have changed.

With entertainment being the second largest export today and the inability of the owners to ship out the culture to Asia, the “New Media” worker today have much more untapped power than they are aware of. It’s not the bosses who allow workers to organize into a unit; it’s the workers decision. They may be digital mills rather than steel mills or cotton mills or paper mills but to office workers they are mills nonetheless. And where there’s exploitation, there’s going to be unions.
Freelancers Union

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