White Collar Job for 500 a week
At the Barricades with E! Writers | Jacobin
Nothing scrambles the conventional wisdom on contemporary class politics in the US like a white-collar strike. In our neoliberal era, we’re told that unions might have once been appropriate for the soot-faced and burly proletarians of the 1930s. But since most of those workers have long since disappeared, labor unions — the logic follows — are also no longer necessary.
But not all skilled (and deeply exploited) laborers go to work with a hardhat and a lunch pail. And just like their union brothers and sisters in warehouses and factory floors across the country, the struggle for real union representation is every bit as radicalizing.
Eliza Skinner has spent the past year writing jokes for the E! television show Fashion Police. Skinner pens about 200 jokes per episode (almost a full work week’s as far as ‘hours worked’), pitching them at a weekly meeting with the host, Joan Rivers, and the show’s producers. For this, she is paid roughly $500 a week.
What is unique about this arrangement, in comparison with Hollywood norms, is the intensity of the work (the 30-40 hours of work are usually compressed into 3 days), and the meagerness of the compensation. Fashion Police writers’ paychecks say: “Hours worked: 8” every week, regardless of the actual time spent on crafting their contributions to the show. This exploitation is especially galling because the tempo of TV production often requires marathon stretches on the writer’s part: as long as 17 hours in a row, in the case of awards specials. “8 hours. $500,” Skinner marvels. “To write a hit TV show–– one of the top rated shows on the network.”
We live in a nation where airline pilots, adjunct professors and Hollywood writers make little more than the minimum wage. Is it a good idea? Does it constitute economic justice for these highly skilled professions? I’m sure a solid majority favors having airline pilots and a smaller majority, college professors. However, a good argument could be made that we can live without a good part of our television viewing. On the other hand, I do not deny that it is hard work and demands creativity and intelligence.
The owners here, have a number one show and pay their writers a small sum for working concentrated hours not even bothering to pay overtime, that’s pretty pathetic. Economic justice implies paying a fair wage. The economic value of their labor far outweighs the salary.
What’s the business ethics here? What’s a fair salary? Is economic justice even a thought in Hollywood? Those are important questions. What the producers are getting is writers working for little more than an unskilled worker flipping burgers. The producers are also making large sums of money from the effort of the workers. So, the question boils down to this – Are you content to have businesses pay the least possible to get the most possible labor? Or Is there a fair salary based on the productivity of the workers?