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Workers vs. MTV

In the real world, there are unions

By Betsey Piette
Philadelphia

MTV's "Real World" was dealt a reality check when it tried to set up shop in Philadelphia using non-union labor.

Union members from the city's construction trades picketed for two weeks outside the Seaman's Church Institute in Old City and prevented the production staff from entering a building being renovated for the so-called reality show.

The message from Teamsters, painters, carpenters and electricians to the show that claims to define "hip" was clear: Union busting isn't cool!

Bunim/Murray Productions, producers of "Real World," had sidestepped organized labor in 13 previous cities, including New York, Chicago and Boston. In Philadelphia, they hired a non-union suburban construction company that had been picketed by the carpenters' union at other job sites. Although city officials pressured the unions to compromise, Bunim/Murray refused to set a precedent of using union labor, packed up and left town.

In the aftermath of Bunim/Murray's departure, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News--the city's two daily newspapers, both owned by union-busting Knight Ridder--led a barrage of attacks on the construction union leaders, labeling them ," "oafs," "bullies" and "Neanderthals" for standing in the way of letting "Real World" portray Philadelphia as a "cool" place for young tech-savvy professionals to spend their money.

But even Daily News staff writer Ellen Gray had to ask just how "cool" is it that "Real World" producers Bunim/Murray and MTV, a division of Viacom--the same media conglomerate that owns CBS--"don't want to pay union wages to produce a show that celebrates conspicuous consumption?" (Philadelphia Daily News, March 18) Gray explained that she was attracted to Philadelphia precisely because its newspapers were unionized, and paid enough so she could afford life in the city.

The attack on the unions is an offense against all union workers, whose off-camera labor built the cities showcased by reality television. It's also an insult to "Real World"'s target audience to imply they are only about being obnoxious to each other, partying, hanging out at Star bucks, wearing Tommy Hilfiger and sporting Nike sneakers.

The anti-globalization movement, which comes mainly from the same age bracket as this show's target audience, is challenging the same multinational corporations whose products are promoted by MTV and shows like "Real World." Many youths are also struggling to make ends meet on not just one non-union job, but often two or three.

If MTV wanted to portray the real, real world, it could send its production crews to Colombia to document the heroic life-and-death struggles of members of the SINALTRAINAL union. They have been victims of assassinations, attempted murder, kidnappings, forced displacement and burning of their homes and union offices by paramilitary forces acting as union busters on behalf of Coca-Cola Corp.

Reality television could have looked at the lives of 70,000 members of the Food and Commercial Workers union in Cali fornia, who fought to save their health-care benefits while trying to survive a four-month lockout by the Greedy Three supermarket chains--Vons/Safeway, Albert sons and Ralphs. "Real World" cast members could have supported the boycotts against Coke and the supermarket giants, but in the world of capitalist entertainment, this would never fly.

Reprinted from the April 1, 2004, issue of Workers World newspaper

This article is copyright under a Creative Commons License.
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