Editorial: State of Labor in TV Industry No Cause for Joy

Sep 1, 2003  •  Post A Comment

As America officially celebrates Labor Day for the 109th time, it gives us pause to look at the holiday’s meaning and the state of labor in the television industry today.
“Labor Day differs in every essential way from the other holidays of the year in any country,” Samuel Gompers, founder and longtime president of the American Federation of Labor, said more than a century ago. “All other holidays are in a more or less degree connected with conflicts and battles of man’s prowess over man, of strife and discord for greed and power, of glories achieved by one nation over another. Labor Day … is devoted to no man, living or dead, to no sect, race, or nation.”
Labor Day is dedicated to the achievements of American workers, and their contribution to the strength, prosperity and well-being of our country.
In show business, there seems to be less each year for labor to celebrate. Most obviously, there is the issue of runaway production. When TV series, movie and ad production goes outside the United States, it leaves thousands of highly skilled workers in L.A., New York and other U.S. production centers unable to practice their craft. It may provide a financial benefit to large, multinational corporations and producers, but it leaves thousands who have contributed to our industry looking for alternative careers.
It is even worse for those in creative fields. The statistics about actors, musicians and other performers are sad. Typically more than 90 percent of union actors are out of work on any given day, and those who are working often toil irregularly and for little more than scale.
Occasionally, the “stars” of hit shows are able to use their leverage to get better deals. This was brought home last week by the salary struggle at the CBS hit “Everybody Loves Raymond.” The lesson was not that holding out pays off, but rather that the wage gap is widening between the few select stars lucky enough to command the big salaries and the bulk of dedicated, hard-working actors who still toil in obscurity for what amounts over a year to well under a living wage.
Overall, the nation’s economic picture remains cloudy, and many of those in the media industry remain highly vulnerable to economic disruptions. Instinctively, corporate America responds to such conditions by cutting costs-in other words, cutting jobs.
Consolidation continues to be an ever-larger fact of life among media concerns. Even as Congress debates rolling back parts of the Federal Communications Commission’s June 2 deregulation ruling, scheduled to go into effect this week, the “bigger is better” mentality has wide support in media’s corporate culture, where “synergy savings,” in large part a euphemism for job cuts, are aggressively pursued.
Corporations need to make profits to repay investors a fair return and to provide capital for continuing operations. However, the trend toward outsourcing jobs, replacing workers with new technology and shipping labor-intensive work such as animation overseas is a double-edged sword. It may save money, but it also depletes the American economy of the kind of good jobs that promote social stability and ensure there will be a steady flow of consumers to watch programming, support sponsors and buy tickets.
So on this Labor Day, as the rich in our industry speed off to their vacation homes and the poor picnic at the local park, remember that making a quick buck may be appealing, but the long-term labor pains caused by short-term thinking create hidden costs that our entire society must bear.