A banner for Atlas Media Corp. fluttered in a light breeze above 36th Street in Manhattan.
In this morning's sunlight on the sidewalk below, nearly 100 nonfiction TV writers and producers, members of the Writers Guild of America, East ( WGAE ), waved signs and chanted, demanding health care benefits and better treatment.
Then they staged a footrace, complete with numbered bibs and a finish line held on one end by AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, that was dubbed a “Race to the Top” to end the “race to the bottom” at Atlas—a company named for the right-wing polemical novel Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.
Eighteen months ago, nonfiction TV writers and producers for Atlas Media voted by a 4-to-1 margin to join WGAE, but the company has thwarted their efforts to reach a contract.
The Atlas action was part of a larger campaign by writers and producers of nonfiction TV to improve their jobs with health care benefits, better wages and overtime pay. Writers and producers at three other companies—ITV Studios/Kirkstall, Lion TV and Optomen Productions—also have voted to join WGAE. UK-owned ITV Studios/Kirkstall continues to fight recognition of the election results, although it has lost every appeal to the National Labor Relations Board.
The writers and producers work on projects for production companies that produce name-brand shows airing on major national networks, including Discovery, Bravo!, A&E, MTV, VH1, NBC and others. But it’s a nonunion part of the industry, with writers and producers moving from company to company and project to project.
“If you consider a workplace fraught with violations of wage and hour laws, long hours, unfair pay and zero benefits a sweatshop, then any number of reality television production companies in New York City fit that bill,” said Lowell Peterson, WGAE executive director. “Creative professionals understand the importance of banding together to make their work lives better.”
One woman who declined to share her name for fear of retribution said working at Atlas is “like being in a World War II spy movie. It’s horrible. You get pulled aside by VPs for ‘important discussions.’ I love working in TV, but if I’m going to continue, some things need to change.”
A worker who has been producing and writing for TV for 30 years said she can’t believe how little she had been able to put aside for retirement and for her children’s education. One of her two children is in college. “It’s hard for everybody, but it’s really hard for parents,” she said.
Another writer said she wants basic benefits like health care because, “I would love to say I could have a baby right now, and do what normal people do, but I can’t.”
After the foot race and a few short speeches, Trumka told the crowd, “Atlas thinks they’ve only got to worry about a few workers here, but we’re here to say, ‘You’re wrong!’ The entire AFL-CIO stands with these workers. And however long Atlas holds out, we’ll be out here one day longer!”