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Viacom freelancers walk off job

Workers upset by cutback in benefits

Irked by cutbacks in benefits tied to a payroll shift to an outside vendor, more than 100 freelance workers at Viacom walked off the job Monday to picket the conglom’s Times Square corporate headquarters.

The conglom employs thousands of freelancers in both Gotham and Hollywood, but the benefits cutbacks hit more workers in New York, where much of the company’s animation ops are based and its MTV nets have four offices.

While some freelancers simply returned to their cubicles once the hourlong protest ended and none agreed to be quoted by name, the group was a feisty and vocal one. Chants of “Health care, dental, 401!” got straight to the point, itemizing benefits that are being cut off to all new employees and some existing ones.

The change has occurred as Viacom shifts freelancers to an outside company called Cast and Crew, which will handle payroll for several thousand assistants, animators, writers and others. The part of the company most directly affected is MTV Networks, whose channels rely on a vast network of nonstaff labor.

“A lot of people have gotten the OK from their bosses to take an extended coffee break,” said one of the pickets.

Still, with its furtive, eminently replaceable roster of pickets and small numbers, the job action paled next to the Broadway or writers strikes. No formal dialogue is taking place between protesters and the company, and the workers are not formally organized.

MTV Nets execs did not comment Monday, but reps pointed to a memo distributed late last week. “We understand that there are many valid questions, concerns and bad feelings around the new policies for freelance, inhouse and project-based temporary employees and the way they were communicated,” the memo read. “We are listening closely to the response and moving to quickly address the questions and concerns by making some immediate changes, based on your feedback.”

The company has grandfathered in some employees for a new 401(k) plan that launches in the first quarter and is expanding the grandfather definition for many longer-serving workers.

(John Dempsey contributed to this report.)

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