Viacom freelancers win benefits after walkout

by Beacon Staff • December 12, 2007

When Viacom rescinded benefits last week, freelancers began organizing, according to a Dec.,Dozens of employees at Viacom-owned television channels walked off the job earlier this week, demonstrating outside the media conglomerate's New York office with signs and chants demanding restored health and retirement benefits, sources said.

When Viacom rescinded benefits last week, freelancers began organizing, according to a Dec. 11 report in the New York Times. At issue were benefits afforded to full-time employees like health, dental and retirement programs. The part-timers-sometimes called permalancers-say they work full-time hours and should receive equal perks.

After two days of protesters wielding witty signage on Broadway, Viacom relented on Wednesday, Dec. 12. Just before employees were to walk out that day, the company sent an e-mail to employees saying their benefits would be restored.

"It's a huge percent of people here who are freelancers," said Tim Wilder, who has freelanced at Viacom's Nickelodeon station for two years. "I imagine a couple [management] levels up are freelancers. They have a term for us here: 'open-doors.'"

The Viacom walkouts highlight the tenuous labor relations that have plagued show business recently, an environment in which many Emerson graduates may find themselves. It came amid the ongoing Writer's Guild Association's strike in Los Angeles, in which scriptwriters and studios are at an impasse over Internet royalties.

Students interning with writers as part of Emerson's Los Angeles program have already felt the labor pinch, the Beacon reported in November, and freelancing is common for recent graduates, said senior Adam Burnett.

Burnett, a film production major who graduates this month, interned at VH1 in Santa Monica this semester. He said the office hierarchy was unique.

"Almost everyone I worked with was freelance or temps, so it makes it easier to fire people," Burnett said. "Very few people are taken on as staff members. People are hired as temps and will stay for years."

Sheri Ziccardi, Emerson's director of career services, said she advises graduates to negotiate a variety of employment options, including contract work.

"Many of the students end up pursuing freelance gigs, because that's the nature of the business," Ziccardi said.

Wilder said the nonunion employees organized the walkout after Viacom changed the benefit structure last week, requiring some workers to wait even longer to become eligible for health and dental coverage, the Times article said. The 401(k) retirement plan was also removed.

"It will be different with these new rules," Wilder said. "People were enjoying the stability of the full-time gig, and they haven't really felt like they were at the mercy of any kind of market. But I think that's going to change."

Wilder, however, said he was still skeptical of management, who he said now wants to make them true freelancers, who work for hourly wages without holidays or paid vacations.

Sara Horowitz, the founder of the Freelancers Union, said the problem of permalancers at Viacom is emblematic of a larger shift in media and other new industries.

She said the industry was grappling with how to balance labor rights.

Unionization is an option for the freelancers, said Wilder, who along with other employees met with Jesus Sanchez, an organizing coordinator for the Radio and Television Broadcast Engineers Local 1212.

"[Viacom] gave them the royal shaft," Sanchez said. "These companies recycle guys out of your school like it's going out of style."