LISE LAREAU | Canadian Media Guild
After five years of working with people in Toronto’s robust factual/reality TV industry, the Canadian Media Guild is taking the campaign a step further by supporting workers who’ve decided it’s time to join a union in order to gain real negotiating strength.
The Guild estimates there are about 2,000 people who regularly work on set and in post-production for reality shows such as Property Brothers, Coldwater Cowboys and Amazing Race Canada. Almost 500 people have signed on with the CMG (CWA Canada Local 30213), saying they want to be part of a group campaigning for change.
CMG leaders say job descriptions and work practices in this field were once similar to the work in documentary production, but is slowly starting to look more like traditional film and scripted sets — with stunts, complicated photography, and long hours.
“While reality TV is an established part of the entertainment industry now, we have found that reality TV workers have been left out of the traditional entertainment industry contracts by unions and producers alike,” says Denise O’Connell, who worked in the industry for 20 years before kick-starting CMG’s Fairness in Factual TV campaign. “That’s partly because reality TV was seen as a passing fad, or a way for networks and broadcasters to fill in their schedules with cheap non-union content during strikes.”
Two decades later, the industry is still going strong — though it’s increasingly squeezed by broadcasters caught in a changing media universe.
Workers have seen wages stagnate while being expected to work long hours without overtime, with no reasonable turnaround time, and no extra pay for holidays or weekends. Individual contracts are one-sided and non-negotiable for the most part. Workers often don’t get paid when they’re sick, and in an effort to cut corners, companies regularly underpay and take advantage of people anxious to break in to the industry.
“We’ve created a place where workers in this industry can share information, and understand that they aren’t alone in their frustrations. But it’s going to take more than that to really improve work conditions. Frankly, we need collective power to bring some accountability to this industry,” says O’Connell.
One of the major challenges facing CMG in this campaign is that nearly all who work in the entertainment field do so on a project-to-project basis as so-called ‘independent contractors’.
“In our view, it doesn’t matter what they’re called; they work on an ongoing basis and deserve fairness, stability and a voice in the workplace,” says O’Connell.
Two years ago, workers at VICE Media chose the CMG to represent them.
CMG President Kam Rao says there are similarities between that workplace and other production companies in the industry.
“Collective agreements are a vital way to improve conditions for the rising numbers of precarious workers in the culture industry and other industries, too,” Rao says.
“Unions have to start figuring out ways to support people who are not necessarily traditional employees. That’s why this campaign is important and, in fact, it could be ground-breaking.”