by digby

So, I see that I'm being slammed quite hard on Daily Kos for posting a link in an earlier post which stated that Oprah Winfrey runs a non-union shop. Dkos diarist Bob Johnson claims this was a smear and condemns me for linking to an unsubstantiated article that claimed she pays sub-standard wages and benefits.

First of all, this kind of thing happens all the time in blogging. We link to articles as a matter of course, and sometimes they are wrong. The way we normally deal with it is to write a note to the blogger and ask them to correct the error rather than write a DKos diary calling him or her a lazy smear artist based upon a four word error and a link to an article. But this is primary time and people are not especially courteous about anything so I won't take it personally.

It's true that I did personally write that Oprah Winfrey "runs a non-union shop" and quoted from the article. Johnson refutes this:

Is it true that Winfrey "refuses to allow union representation of any sort inside the doors of her studio?"

Doesn't look like it. Meet 74-year-old Delores Olofson, an SEIU member profiled in the SEIU newsletter, Stronger Together [WARNING: pdf], from the Summer of 2005:

Olofson works part-time in Guest Services at the Harpo Studios, where Oprah is taped. Her main responsibilities are checking guests' i.d.'s and hanging their coats. She has been a Local 1 member for more than a decade and a steward for eight years.

So, I was wrong and I will correct that in the earlier post. Clearly she does have at least one union member working for her studio. Johnson can't verify that Harpo productions has contracts with any other unions, but supposes that she must since there is no public outcry in Chicago about that. He may very well be correct on that and I won't speculate further.

I can state, however, (and knew with absolute certainty before I wrote the post) that she runs a non-WGA shop and it might behoove people, before they condemn me, to take a look at my post and see that it was about the WGA strike and was written in response to the news that the the studios had hired Chris Lehane. The thrust of it was that anti-union and big money interests in the entertainment industry had influence over the Democratic party in ways that were detrimental to progressivism. Clinton's association with Lehane and Mark Penn were mentioned as well as Winfrey's union issues. And I still maintain that is an important thing for progressives to think about --- especially netroots progressives for whom an open media environment and a strong union movement are essential.

Perhaps Oprah has a contract with her writers that gives them residual rights and all the other union benefits that writers already get and the new ones they are fighting for in the strike. Likewise, if she isn't unionized, I hope her other below-the-line workers get the same kind of protections that the entertainment craft unions would offer them. It's not as good as unionization, of course, since she is still in production and therefore making money at the expense of others who are observing the strike, but it's certainly better than exploiting your own workers.

And although Bob Johnson explains that reality show performers, such as those being sought for Oprah's new non-union reality show, haven't been allowed guild membership because they stand to win big bucks if they make it to the finals, I'm not sure why we should support that. Reality show writers for instance, desperately want to be represented by the writer's guild. (Read this from United Hollywood.) I don't know if Oprah's writers (or whatever her production company is is calling them) for this new reality show will be union or not, but I do know that they should be.

I like Oprah as much as the next person. She's an American icon. And I have written exactly zero criticisms about her political support for Obama. It's perfectly fine with me that celebrities support the candidates of their choice --- they're citizens too. But just as I worry about any powerful rich progressives who show "flexibility" when it comes to applying progressive principles to their own businesses, I also worry that Oprah may be a mixed blessing for the movement as a whole. I don't think that's a smear.

To sum up: from what I learned today on DKos, the article I excerpted is inaccurate or at least unsubstantiated in asserting that she pays substandard wages. (It appears that while she works her staff members extremely long hours, she does pay them overtime for it.) I will append a correction to the original post. I also do not know that she runs a wholly non-union shop, only that she runs a non-WGA shop. I will also append that clarification. (If it turns out that she does not hire union workers in other areas, I will update with that as well.)

But my larger point still stands. All progressives should support unions, especially incredibly wealthy progressives like Oprah Winfrey. She is not a WGA signatory and is not supporting the strike.

And we should all be on the lookout for what promises members of the entertainment industrial complex are extracting from our politicians for their support. If you care about our new participatory democracy, it's important. Money has a way of making even the most passionate progressive get greedy.

And btw, if I wanted to smear Oprah, there are some truly kooky whacked out allegations out there on this subject that I could have used. I linked to the article I did because I'd read a lot about her being non-union in the context of the WGA strike. There wasn't anything more to it than that.