David (us) & Goliath (them): History of the Reality Campaign

Written by David Young, Director, WGAw Organizing Department

In May 2005, more than 500 reality TV writers and editors came to the Writers Guild Theater to discuss plans to organize reality television. The overwhelming majority of them signed authorization cards giving the WGA the legal right to demand industry recognition of the union as their representative in collective bargaining. Since that meeting, hundreds more have signed cards.

It's hard to overstate the importance of this event–the May 7th meeting marked the public launch of the WGA's first major organizing drive since the union's inception and it could prove to be pivotal in advancing the Guild's fortunes in future bargaining.

I have been organizing for close to 20 years and I can tell you in my experience labor meetings of this size and passion are pretty rare. It's all the more notable because a year ago this campaign did not exist.

The reality organizing campaign began last June when seven bedraggled story producers just back from the Australian Outback met with Writers Guild staff and officers to talk about their recent experiences working in the field. They looked like hell and their stories were pretty horrific.

Twelve hours was a short day for these writers as they worked outside in more than 100-degree heat. Food and water were not a given. One story producer recounted a 40-hour stretch during which time he was only able to sleep an hour and a half–the other 38 hours he spent working.

After enduring 30 days straight without any time off, they'd had enough. These writers came to the Guild with the crazy idea that they deserved healthcare benefits, pensions, and decent working conditions and they wanted the WGA to represent them.

We asked them to each bring another reality writer to the next meeting in August. More than 20 writers turned out and we quickly learned that these "factories of the field" were pretty common in reality television.

A dedicated cadre of reality story producers formed the initial core of an organizing committee that has done the work of recruiting hundreds of their colleagues.

But as we found out more about how production on these shows actually worked, we came to the conclusion that the reality writers did not write their shows on their own in post-production. We needed the support of the editors who are the other essential creative people engaged in reality post-production.

In January the WGAw Board of Directors approved the bold step of inviting reality editors to join our campaign as a way to build more strength and as recognition of the crucial collaborative role they play in crafting reality storylines.

I am proud to say that more than half of the storytellers in the theater last month raised their hands when asked who among them were editors. And with their support, we now have a majority of reality story people behind this campaign, giving us the right to demand legal recognition on their behalf.

Which leads to the question: What are we trying to accomplish here?

We will demand that the six major entertainment conglomerates accede to a union standards agreement. This would set a floor beneath which companies that produce reality shows for their networks and channels will not be allowed to go. It would also take away the incentive for producers to avoid signing a WGA agreement, and for networks to use producers to create a sweatshop system.

Although we are currently seeking to negotiate with industry leaders, we may not get an agreement simply by asking nicely. The Guild is working to build enough power to bring the conglomerates to the bargaining table so that we can create a unionized reality TV sector.

You should know as well that as a last resort, we are prepared to lead reality writers and editors out on strike, should they decide to take that step.

I believe deeply in the power of the strike as an economic weapon. But I've also learned that our struggles have a David-and-Goliath element to them, and that winning campaigns against huge corporations requires us to utilize every weapon that we can develop and be prepared to attack every weakness that the other side may have.

We have strength in numbers but we also have to be prepared to take smart risks to achieve our objective. In the coming months you can expect to see the Guild to engage in some out-of-the-box tactics that we have never used before. These tactics may lead industry executives to accuse us of breaking the "gentleman's agreement" that has existed between the talent and the studios. But that agreement was broken long ago by the reality producers and the networks that chose to promote nonunion production of these shows. Respect must be mutual, and agreements must be adhered to by both parties. In reality TV, it is the industry that has broken the agreement.

We have taken some significant first steps in what could be a serious struggle. But I believe this fight will make us stronger and that it will inspire the network and studio heads to take very seriously the needs of our membership in the next round of MBA negotiations in 2007 and beyond.

Organizing Reality TV