Gawker.com is a gossip blog best known for mocking Lindsay Lohan and generally lowering the level of discourse in the New York media world. But starting on December 4 the website put snark aside and helped instigate one of the most unlikely and successful labor campaigns of recent years. The sight of young, educated workers in the seismically unstable media industry using spontaneous online organizing to cope with innovative forms of corporate exploitation and disrespect throws a challenge to the labor establishment. Some see a new social movement being born.
Viacom, a Fortune 500 media company, had $11.5 billion in revenue last year. It includes the hip, youth-oriented cable networks MTV, VH1, Comedy Central and Nickelodeon. But the cachet of these names on a young college graduate’s résumé is not matched by the way the company treats its workers.
Like scores of companies in the media industry and elsewhere, Viacom has increasingly shifted to workers who are not regular, salaried employees–both true freelancers and “permalancers.” The term refers to those who may work full-time for several years–with duties, hours, and responsibilities very similar to regular employees–yet who are classified as temporary employees or independent contractors and do not receive the same recognition as regular employees. Someone like Alex Blagg. The 27-year-old comedian was hired two years ago to run VH1’s Best Week Ever blog, the online version of the popular show. “I work pretty much forty to fifty hours a week,” he says. “Sometimes on weekends. I’m responsible for maintaining and producing the BWE.tv site as well as collaborating with the staff of the BWE show, and I oversee about ten people–the other writers on the website as well as the production and interns.”
By some accounts, permalancers and freelancers make up half the creative and production staff at Viacom networks–writers, animators, producers, editors, web designers. And they enjoyed unusually generous benefits for workers in these categories. But on December 4, as first reported in a post categorized “rumors” on Gawker, Viacom handed them some bad news.
Caroline O’Hare, a “freelancer” who has worked full-time in online promotions at MTV for two and a half years, said, “When they first told us about this, they called us in to pick up our holiday-party invites and then told us to pick up the paperwork for Cast & Crew,” a company to which Viacom plans to start outsourcing the payroll and benefits administration for its nonregular employees. “I was looking through the packet and I was like, ‘I’m sorry, where’s my 401(k)?’ They said, ‘Oh yeah, you don’t have that anymore.'”
The reliance on freelancers and independent contractors, in fact or in name only, is a prevalent business strategy to retain flexibility and cut labor costs, especially on expensive healthcare benefits. Another such strategy is the use of payroll companies, also known as “professional employment organizations” like Cast & Crew–a k a internal outsourcing (another oxymoron). In the case of Viacom, both strategies were at work. According to reports on Gawker and elsewhere, the rollback for freelance and contract employees initially included not only 401(k)s but paid vacation, holiday pay, tuition reimbursement, commuter pretax deductions, vision and dental benefits and, most important, a severely scaled-back healthcare plan. A typical story of life in the new economy? Sure. “I’m actually one of those people who fall into the ‘go have a beer and bitch about it’ camp,” says Blagg. “When I took a job with Viacom I knew I was falling into bed with the enemy, and things like this are not out of the realm of what I would expect from them.” And yet something was different this time. Maybe it was the Christmas timing. Or perhaps it was all the blogging, YouTube videos, newspaper and TV coverage of the television writers’ strike–positive images of a sympathetic, educated, creative, unionized workforce, which aren’t exactly common in today’s mainstream media. “I think there’s a general unrest in the media industry, with the writers’ strike and the Broadway stagehand strike,” Blagg, who wrote a post in support of the permalancers on his official Viacom-sponsored blog, says. “People are getting sick of feeling irrelevant and undervalued by these giant multinational corporations that are trying to increase their stockholder profits at the expense of the workforce that they rely on.”