By Seth Sandronsky
Touch-screen users of the world, unite! Just ask Social Movement Technologies, a non-profit that teaches progressive groups and labor unions to improve their social media skills.
SMT recently signed a one-year Memorandum of Understanding with the Pacific Media Workers Guild that will give the company's freelancers a contract and the protection of a union, an agreement that may be the first of its kind in the U.S.
“This MOU is a significant achievement for our local,” said Carl Hall, executive officer of the PMWG. “Joining us is a big step toward helping non-traditional workers who need a voice at work, job security, benefits, and protection from unfair discipline.”
Talks between the Guild and SMT were friendly, but complicated, and took nearly a year to complete, said Kat Anderson, the Guild’s administrative officer, an attorney specializing in contract law. “SMT affiliated with us because of our expertise working with non-traditional employment relationships,” she said.
Like many new businesses, SMT is virtual. Executive Director Hannah Roditi is based in Hartford, Connecticut, but her staffers work in other states. But that doesn’t change their need for representation. “Clearly freelancers need workplace protections,” she said.
Like much of the News Guild, PMWG’s roots are in the newspaper industry, but the local has adapted to a changing economy, and freelancers and interpreters now comprise a significant portion of the membership.
“Employers prefer precarious labor and that means union-free workers,” said Hall. “We have been struggling to find ways to help such employees without union security,” Hall said. The agreement with SMT fits that bill.
What particular issues might the Guild bargain about? One issue is increasing the minimum pay of $25 per hour for freelance work. “There is already talk amongst our freelancers that $25 per hour, minimum, for freelance work is probably not adequate in 2015,” said Anderson.
Four SMT members, or Partners, are joining the freelance unit now, said Roditi. An experienced union organizer, she has worked with private- and public-sector unions, from the International Brotherhood of Teamsters to the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees.
Evan Greer an SMT Partner, based in Massachusetts, is joining Guild Freelancers, a 119-member unit of PMWG. "I have been a union member most of my adult life,” he said. “Unions are critical for building people and worker power, not just for better wages but for a better world,” said Greer, who has been active in the struggle to maintain net neutrality and an open Internet.
The digital age has potential to strengthen union organizing. This opportunity arrives amid a decades-long weakening of the American labor force.
For example, the union membership rate was 20.1 percent in 1983 versus 11.1 percent in 2014 and 11.3 percent in 2013, according to the federal Labor Department. The fall of union membership has sparked a rise in freelance workers.
Their ranks are vast. A Sept. 2014 report by the Freelancers Union and Elance-oDesk found that 53 million American workers, 34 percent of the U.S. labor force, have employment as freelance workers: (Read the study here)
In the meantime, SMT will be teaching skills that will help unions and other progressive groups to wage a modern struggle. One example: A three-week “Twitter for Organizing” campaign that enrolled 350 people in January.
“We’re hoping that over the coming year there will be up to 10 SMT Partners joining the freelance unit,” Roditi said.
The agreement with SMT contains a framework for its Partners to gain representation for collective bargaining as full-time workers, according to Hall.
Although it appears that the agreement with SMT is the first of its kind in the U.S., our colleagues in the Canadian Media Guild have represented freelancers working for the CBC for years.
Dues are automatically checked off at the same rate CBC employees pay, and the Guild represents these freelance members when there are any disputes about rates, payments, and rights.
The CMG is actively organizing freelancers in a number of cities, including Toronto, where it has a strong and active membership.
Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild.