Unionism for Freelancers

On Saturday, I attended a panel hosted by the National Writers Union held on the campus of George Washington University.  Representatives of the Author’s Guild, the News Guild, the National Writers Union, and the Writers Guild of America, as well as other union activists, spoke. Amongst the matters discussed were the ways in which employers take advantage of freelance writers, and the difficulty of organizing them to better their situation.

Under existing conditions, freelancers work individually, and in isolation from each other. Major news organizations are getting them to work for next to nothing–in many cases, simply for “exposure.” The writer is expected to be grateful for this “exposure.”  Never mind the rent that needs to be paid. Or putting food on the table.  Or any of the other expenses of living.

Some major newspapers are cutting their staff and relying largely on freelance writers to provide their news coverage.  As an example, one major newspaper apparently puts out a call for an article on a subject.  As many as 800 freelancers submit articles–of which the newspaper will only pick and publish one–and pay as little as $50 for it.  In this way, news coverage is being turned into another version of American Idol.  This is not only bad for the freelancers.  It is bad for news staff who eventually will be entirely eviscerated.  And ultimately, it is bad for the quality of news coverage.

What is the answer? In part, getting freelancers–even those who are new to it and need the “exposure”–to refuse to work for nothing.  This will be easier for them to do if they have the support and advice of a union.  Another component is getting staff who are unionized to include standards protecting freelancers in their contracts. (To refuse to do so because freelancers are seen as competition would be penny wise, pound foolish. Raising the standards for freelancers will make it less likely that media corporations can gain a financial advantage by laying off staff and using freelancers in their place.)  Finally, recognizing that “freelance” no longer refers only to writers.  All individual contract workers are freelance workers.  And if this is corporate America’s current strategy for eliminating fair pay and benefits for those who work for them, we need a new broad model for how to combat that manipulation.

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