Today in what’s wrong with the economy: full-time writers at a hit TV show who make $500 a week and enjoy no benefits

Over at Jacobin.com, Kurt Newman has written a really fascinating piece about the wage slaves of the E! reality television show, Fashion Police. The program, which stars Joan Rivers, is one the E! network’s most popular shows. And yet its writers, who work virtually full-time (30 to 40 hours per week), are paid a measly $500 a week — with no benefits.

Fed up with this degree of rank exploitation, the show’s writers got together and took an action that is rare and dramatic in any industry, let alone the entertainment biz: they engaged in a walk-out. Their strike, which began on April 13, is ongoing. The writers are demanding back wages and a union shop:

Twelve Fashion Police writers are seeking over $1 million in back wages from the show’s producers and Joan Rivers’s Rugby Productions. The Writers Guild of America-West’s statement alleges that the show “ignores the California laws that require an employer to pay hourly employees their regular wage rate for all time worked in an eight-hour period” and flouts the law requiring payment of overtime “for employment beyond eight hours in any workday or more than 40 hours in any workweek.”

Fundamentally, the Fashion Police writers are seeking to gain a union shop. The WGA-West has framed the strike as revolving around the question of E!’s open shop skullduggery: “There are two possible endings to this conflict. Either E! will agree to cover the writers under a Guild contract, or it will no longer benefit from the writing talents of the current staff of Guild members.”

The striking writers are very brave indeed, and their actions are downright inspiring:

For labor intellectuals who often reside in the intemperate zone that Jodi Dean calls “left melancholia,” it is a wonder to behold the resurgence of labor politics in a location that we usually presume to be a hotbed of toxic individualism. “Unions,” as [striking writer Eliza] Skinner stresses, “are our only hope for setting and maintaining standards, so that we can live off of our work.”

As the plight of these writers vividly demonstrates, blue collar types are not the only workers in our economy who stand to gain from unions. The white collar equivalent of the sweatshop is a reality, and white collar workers could also greatly benefit from the far stronger bargaining position that unions establish.

The Fashion Police writers’ situation also dramatically illustrates another urgent problem in our economy: workers are not getting anywhere near their fair share of the economy’s gains from productivity. In the U.S., between 1973 and 2011, productivity increased 80.4 percent, but the hourly compensation of the median worker grew by just 10.7 percent. This is one of chief causes of soaring economic inequality in our society.

The growing wedge between productivity and compensation is profoundly dangerous to our democracy. As John Maynard Keynes once said, “Nothing corrupts society more than to disconnect effort and reward.” And yet in our economy, that disconnect continues to grow by leaps and bounds. Short of revolution, the only way to put a stop to this is to empower workers. And the most effective institution we have to empower workers are labor unions.

I applaud the E! writers and wish them every success — as should every person who believes that workers are entitled to just compensation for the fruits of their labor. A campy reality TV show may seem like an unlikely staging ground for a workers’ revolution. But hey, you’ve got to start somewhere. And unless you’re one of 1%, their fight is your fight, too. Someone is making bank off that TV show, and it clearly is not the workers to whom it owes much of its success.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee