Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Freelance unions to the rescue, sort of

Two unions are offering succor to self-employed journalists in a brutal environment that has vaporized thousands of jobs and driven freelance rates to zero – or something awfully close to it.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Unions, like newspapers, have been rendered obsolescent by changing conditions.

Whatever solutions the future may hold, worker collectives and print publications aren't among them.

12:31 PM  
Anonymous Robin Wolaner said...

Interesting post, Alan. I remember in the early 80s the National Writers Union tried to organize freelancers and targeted Mother Jones, of which I was publisher, for higher rates. (Ruth Reichl before she was famous was one of the union stewards I met with.) I refused to negotiate, but if they were violating antitrust laws, I don't recall having that arrow in my quiver. I wonder if the laws changed since then, or if I missed something :)

1:04 PM  
Blogger Sara Steffens said...

Thanks for continuing to advocate for freelancers.

Actually, boosting pay is on our agenda at Guild Freelancers -- but we're looking at legal means, like our "Fair Freelancer" standards.

The concept of Fair Freelance is a little like fair trade: members get together and draft a set of standards for what a decent freelance job looks like. Then we approach employers and ask them to voluntarily agree to follow them, in exchange for being able to use our Fair Freelance logo.

You start with progressive or alternative publications and move from there -- over time, this will begin to shape a cultural standard of what decent treatment of freelancers looks like (much in the same way union contracts also raise standards at nearby non-union workplaces).

There's a small group being formed to draft Fair Freelance standards.

In the meantime, members also share tips about what various employers are paying, and steer each other away from those places that net ridiculously low amounts, or never pay up at all.

Hey, it may be chicken soup, but we're getting pretty hungry out here...

4:22 PM  
Blogger Rebecca Rosen Lum said...

If we're making journalists feel better, perhaps it's because of the benefits and supports we at Guild Freelancers provide.

For starters, those include a juried press credential, discounts and financial benefits that range from scholarships to retirement plans, a monthly professional development series, and a members directory aimed at employers.

In the coming six months we expect to begin offering dental coverage and to make significant progress toward obtaining affordable medical coverage. We will be approaching city and county officials about extending parking benefits to our credential holders.

And we are developing a Fair Freelance certification for those employers who pay decently, and otherwise treat the workers and their work with integrity.

For more on Guild Freelancers activities, events and programs, log onto or email us at

Rebecca Rosen Lum
Unit Chair, Guild Freelancers

4:55 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Honestly, a freelance union? This is madness. There are literally thousands of writers out there bidding for work at places like, and they are bidding at market rates. Why would a magazine hire a freelancer at union scale? Does this make any sense at all?

Unions exist not to prevent workers from being "exploited" (whatever that means), but to obtain above-market wages through the cartelization of labor. Period.

You can talk about chicken soup all you want, Alan, but this idea is malarkey. If a writer can write something people want to read, then he will be paid. Unions are not only not necessary, but actively hinder writers getting a job.

One of the biggest problems with newspapers today is the Guild scale and contracts, which distort the market and keep older journalists with more seniority employed at the expense of younger people with energy and talent. But soon, thanks to the horrible product coming out of most printing plants today, this problem will take care of itself. There will be no unions because there will be no newspapers either.

--Fresh Air

10:24 PM  

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