An Ugly Protest of ‘Top Chef’ Gets at Reality TV Tensions

Allegations that the local Teamsters threatened cast and crew reveal the labor issues around reality TV.

top chef filming

Associated Press

The report that during a protest of Bravo’s Top Chef, Teamsters threatened the cast and crew with violence, used sexist and homophobic slurs, and slashed tires is already causing a scandal. The local Teamsters have long had a contentious relationship with the entertainment industry, and this story features allegations of unusually disgusting behavior. But tension between unions and reality TV production companies aren’t unique to Massachusetts.

On Wednesday, Deadline Hollywood reported that Boston’s Teamsters Local 25 staged a protest during filming for the Bravo reality cooking competition. The union disliked the show’s refusal to use their employees and instead hire production assistants to drive production vehicles. The picketing, anonymous sources told Deadline, came with threats of violence and hours of personal harassment.

By the time Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s car pulled up to the Steel & Rye restaurant in the picturesque New England town of Milton just outside Boston, one of them ran up to her car and screamed, “We’re gonna bash that pretty face in, you fucking whore!”

The Teamsters’ alleged behavior is grim enough that it has already spawned headlines in dozens of publications. Top Chef’s upcoming season will take place in Boston, focusing on local chefs, restaurants, and cuisine. It’s easy to shake our heads at the idea that a story like this might color people’s impressions of the city. No matter your opinion on organized labor, threatening violence against women and damaging property is thuggish and unbecoming.

But while some told Deadline that this was “the most uncomfortable and threatening labor dispute they’d ever witnessed,” it certainly isn’t the only one a reality show has ever faced. Reality TV production companies have long been the subject of criticism for poor working conditions. This summer, Gawker ran a series of articles featuring the firsthand reports of anonymous reality TV employees. Writer Hamilton Nolan summed up his findings: “Unlike many of their brethren in other areas of television and film production, reality TV workers are not unionized, and tend to be paid less, get fewer benefits, and have far fewer workplace protections as a result.”

That’s why Deadline’s report features critiques not just of the Teamsters but of Bravo and the show’s production company, Magical Elves. For some employees, it isn’t company vs. union. Rather, the handling of the incident was actually a symptom of the industry’s poor labor practices:

The crewmember who witnessed the Teamsters threatening and harassing Lakshmi and Levy said Bravo and Magical Elves share blame for putting the cast and crew in a dangerous situation. “Their poor handling of this situation comes as no surprise and really is a symptom of the overall dysfunction of reality-TV production,” the crewmember said. “Reality TV … workers are hired for lower than standard rates because the production companies and networks refuse to embrace unions or hire union workers. Along with that comes a lack of experience, professionalism and integrity. Production executives and showrunners just don’t have the experience or wherewithal to make the right decisions on how to handle issues such as the unions harassing a crew.”

Meanwhile, the Teamsters are using the industry’s embattled history with labor to portray the report as a smear campaign. “As far as we’re concerned, nothing happened,” Local 25 spokeswoman Melissa Hurley told the Boston Herald. “This is typical of nonunion companies who often make excuses for why they won’t hire union labor.”

Whatever actually happened, it’s an ugly story all around, one that reflects terribly on the Teamsters even as it points to serious tensions with the reality TV industry’s labor practices.

Even so, the network told the Herald that it was “an isolating incident” that wouldn’t affect their willingness to come back. The Top Chef season debuts on October 15.