Freelance unions to the rescue, sort of
One union is fairly well established and the other is just getting on its feet. But neither appears likely to ever help solve the principal problem that unions were organized to address: Raising wages.
Still, the groups are doing what they can to make the lonely freelance life a bit easier. In other words, they are like chicken soup when you have a cold: While they won’t cure you, they couldn’t hurt.
The granddaddy of the freelance union movement for journalists and other creative types is the Freelancers Union in New York. Founded as a non-profit organization in 1995, a spokeswoman for the union says its membership has doubled to 132,000 in the last two years.
Meanwhile on the Left Coast, the Media Workers Guild of Northern California has been trying for more than a year to build a Freelancers Unit.
The unit, which represents the first effort by the Newspaper Guild to address the needs of journalists who are not employed at any news organization, has only 62 members. But a spokeswoman says there are plans to step up recruiting in a market where thousands of journalists in the last few years have been forced into involuntary freelancer-tude.
The greatest good that either unit has achieved to date is the establishment of reasonably priced health insurance for members of the New York union who live in that state. And it appears to be quite a respectable accomplishment, too.
Jacklyn Kessel, a spokeswoman for the New York union, says its $388-per-month health policy is approximately a third the cost of similar point of service (POS) plans offered by other vendors in New York State. If you want to know about POS insurance, please click here.
The bargain insurance, which uses the Blue Cross-Blue Shield provider network, is sold by a for-profit subsidiary of the non-profit union. Although the for-profit structure is required by state insurance regulations, the union says it does not intend to make a profit off the business. This may help to explain the lower rates.
The New York union is looking into expanding health insurance to other states and the California group says it will try to offer a group policy as soon as it gets enough members to gain a decent discount from an insurance company.
Meanwhile, boosting pay – the really big objective for any union – is not on the agenda on either coast.
“We're very concerned about the low rates freelancers get paid,” said Sara Steffens of the California union in an email, but antitrust laws prohibit “independent contractors from banding together to set minimum rates.”
For the same reasons, the New York group says it never has tried to organize members to demand higher pay – and never will.
So, the best the unions can do at the moment is to list chiseling publishers on what the California group calls its “Wall of Shame.”
That certainly won’t stop journalists from being exploited. But, like chicken soup, it might help them feel a little better.