Why Freelancers Need To Get Together

By David Bacon

As freelancers, we know we do the work. And while the way we work is what defines us, it's also the root of many of our problems.

We provide the content, but because we don't have a traditional employer-employee relationship with the publications that run our articles or photos, we don’t get regular paychecks.

Some of us used to be staff writers or photographers or graphic artists. Maybe we took a buyout, or got downsized and laid off. Others of us are just beginning our careers as digital natives, and never had the chance to work on staff.

We've always had to sell what we produce, article by article, photo by photo, drawing by drawing. And at some publications, we have to ask to use our own words or images because we’re forced to surrender all copyright claims in order to work.

Many of us are also living without a parachute.

Freelancers in dangerous countries have to survive without the expense accounts and protections afforded to foreign correspondents and photojournalists on staff. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, freelancers comprised 17 percent of all journalists killed worldwide since 1992. In 2015, over 25 percent of all journalists imprisoned were freelancers, and at least six freelancers have “disappeared” since 2004.

For most of us, that lack of support is evident in many ways. No single employer takes responsibility for our healthcare, nor provides a consistent income that can pay the rent. It's up to us to piece together enough work to survive on.

It's like living on a roller coaster: our income swings wildly, and we constantly have to look for a new editor to buy our pictures or stories.

That gives the gatekeepers in our lives a lot of power. We survive on personal relationships, and if they go sour we're in trouble. All of a sudden we're too old, not the right color or gender, or just not friendly or humble enough — and the door closes. Off we go down the digital street looking for another buyer for our skills and product.

Since we're dealing as individuals with the people who pay us, we really have no power in this situation. The proof is the rates we're paid.

Dollars and cents

In the pre-digital era, one print article might’ve paid $1,000 — a month’s rent in those days — and a photo assignment could’ve paid the same. Now print assignments are disappearing along with the print publications themselves. That leaves us with the web, and the rates there are just a fraction of what we used to make.

One or two hundred dollars for an article, or even less for a photo, pays about a day or two’s worth of of a market-rate rental in San Francisco. That means squeezing three or four people into two-bedroom apartments, or having a partner with a good job. We ourselves take other jobs to survive.

The bottom line is that most of us can't live on what we're making.

So if this is due to our lack of power in economic relationships — bargaining as individuals with the media that use what we produce — the big question is: Can we get together? After all, even for staffers, it's the same question.

Without the ability to act together, we can't change anything.

But for freelancers especially, getting together means overcoming some serious obstacles. To begin with, even if we're given a contract at all (and mostly we work on a handshake or verbal commitment) the first thing it says is that we're independent contractors, not employees.

We believe that if we look at The Newspaper Guild‘s history, we can see that it used to be like this for direct employees, too. That's why they organized, at the risk of losing jobs or getting blacklisted. In those early days, publishers said reporters and photographers would never be able to get together, and even if they did, the big papers would never sit down and agree to change wages and conditions.

Today’s publishers are still saying it. That's what our members heard at the Contra Costa Times, for instance, when they first joined the union. They persisted in spite of threats and dire predictions, and today they have a contract.

That we have a union today is proof our predecessors in the union were right and the publishers were wrong.

Greater than the sum

If we can find a way to get together as freelancers, no piece of paper that says we're independent contractors, and no high priced lawyers saying we're legally barred from bargaining, will be able to stop us. After all, the companies we work for need what we produce. They need our content to fill those blank pages, whether on paper or on the web.

What could we gain as a union that we couldn’t get otherwise?

We can raise rates. Many of us have been talking about trying to make $1-a-word a new standard for our industry. For a photo, it might be $100 for an image. These are just ideas — we need to talk about rates and agree on what we want to fight for.

We need a way to complain effectively about mistreatment or discrimination. This could mean help getting paid if we get stiffed, or support if we’re not treated fairly.

We've already been able to negotiate better dental and vision insurance than we could have gotten as individuals, through the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Freelance members also have access to press passes.

That's a starting point.

If we could get collective agreements for freelancers, we could get publishers to take responsibility for better healthcare. And since we will all want to stop working at some point, we might even be able to negotiate a modest retirement plan.

Our union already provides training programs for journalism students, and free training courses to members.

We are often pitted against each other as freelancers. This creates an unhealthy atmosphere in which we look at each other as competition.

Instead, we need to see that we are all in this together.

Let's find in each other the strength to make our lives better.