01/27/2014 10:37 am ET Updated Mar 29, 2014

No Way to Make a Career

It's a story familiar to many Americans. You want to do work that is interesting and creative, that makes use of your talents and ambition. You immerse yourself in learning the skills and with luck and contacts and hard work you find your first gig, which leads to the second, and after a while you are doing what you dreamed. It does not take long for you to realize that living the dream is more difficult than you anticipated. You find yourself working 60 and 70 hours a week, without any extra pay. You don't have health benefits. You don't have a steady year-round position so you have to pour everything you've got into each job just to be able to get the next one.

Welcome to the world of freelance employment. Welcome to the world of work without unions, without collective bargaining, without any industry-wide standards of employment or compensation or benefits. Welcome to the world of nonfiction basic cable television production. It's a very hard way to make a living, and no way to build a career.

The men and women who write and produce the programs that dominate basic cable television - reality shows, historic reenactments, documentaries and docudramas, the gritty and the glorious - work from show to show and move back and forth between the dozen or so larger production companies in New York, many of which are owned by corporations based in Britain or elsewhere overseas. These larger companies, and another several dozen smaller ones, sell shows to the cable networks like Discovery, National Geographic, History, and A&E. Most of the writer-producers are considered employees, although some companies pretend they are "independent contractors" and deprive them of unemployment insurance, Social Security contributions, and workers compensation coverage.

Everyone works extremely long hours without overtime pay. Almost no one gets health or pension benefits. A serious illness is a catastrophe. Raising a family is a pipe dream.

Starting a few years ago the writer-producers of nonfiction basic cable in New York decided this was not a way to earn a living, and they approached the Writers Guild of America, East to begin a campaign to bring union representation, and union-negotiated terms and conditions, to the industry. It has been a long and difficult struggle because of the transient nature of employment, because people are working so hard they don't have a lot of extra time to organize and agitate, and because many of the employers would rather fight than provide better, more stable jobs. But slowly, and surely, the producers and associate producers are winning gains with the WGAE. Our project is ambitious but straightforward: we want to make nonfiction basic cable television a place where people can build sustainable careers doing work they find meaningful without burning themselves out. This is what the Writers Guild and the other entertainment unions were able to do in network television years ago, and the fact that struggle took place many years ago obscures the reality that it, too, took a lot of time and perseverance to succeed.

Presumably the cable networks, which depend on large audiences to remain profitable, would prefer that secrecy shroud the awful working conditions endured by the men and women who make the shows. But facts are facts, and we hope that subscribers and advertisers let the cable companies know that things must change. This is not a zero-sum game. In the long run, empowering writer-producers to build decent careers will be essential to enhancing and maintaining the quality of the shows that people love to watch.

In the meantime, we will continue the industry-wide approach to building better conditions, where collective bargaining brings health benefits and paid time off and compensation minimums and basic provisions like union security and a grievance-and-arbitration mechanism. This is not always an easy process, and it is rarely quick, but it is vital to the future of an industry in which writer-producers can do productive work without burning themselves out.