The job of the rates

ORGANISING freelances is like herding cats. Which is as it should be: fierce independence and some disdain for accepted routine are what freelances are for. The health of the media is improved by contributors with those qualities - which makes our being able to survive important to it. Not that some who own media seem too concerned about either.

Which is why we have a trade union. But freelances can be a bit of a puzzle for trades unions. The usual trade union model (for new readers), is that it negotiates agreements setting pay and conditions for different grades. This process has been revived by the "Fairness at Work" law that gives workers the right to vote for union representation.

But the model doesn't exactly fit freelances. Every pic and every piece is different, for one thing. Freelance agreements can only set out minimum rates that publishers and broadcasters agree to pay.

If negotiations don't work, of course, trades unions call strikes. Can't exactly do that for freelances, either. There have been interesting cases where freelances have spontaneously decided simultaneously to withdraw their work from a client that "offers" particularly obnoxious terms - and found the client sees sense as a result. But no-one can instruct people who are businesses in our own right to strike.

So the battle to improve conditions for freelances depends on you personally - and ideally on thousands of us taking individual steps, all at the same time.

In time, the union will gain agreements on minimum conditions. The process of winning them will be smoother, and a little swifter, if people who freelance regularly for a publisher or broadcaster can invest the time to get involved in the chapel there - so that activists who are staff members know what freelances' concerns really are. At the very least, please make sure that the chapels at titles you deal with have read and understood the "model claim" document produced by the Freelance Industrial Council (FIC).

More immediate improvements, though, come down to individual efforts. Recognising the worth of your own work - and persuading clients to recognise it in hard cash - is the only way in a marketplace to resist the pressure on rates for everyone as the economy goes through yet another crisis.

London Freelance Branch is supporting efforts to organise training days to strengthen members' individual negotiating skills, for example. If you are interested in such an event, contact Branch Training Officer Carmel Bedford.

Networks of freelances can and do support individuals in their negotiations. The Editorial Photo UK (EPUK) mailing list has had successes in collaborative approaches to managements, as well as sharing information. The network of Guardian contributors has mobilised people when it counts.

In the past few months we've launched UkSubs, a now-thriving network for sub-editors and IndyNet, for all freelances contributing to the Independent titles, whether as photographers, writers or subs. And this week, FIC launches AirNet, for freelance journalists in broadcasting.

Most of this issue's Rate for the Job entries come from IndyNet members, because we've been having a drive to unravel the mysteries of the papers' payments. The Rate for the Job itself is, of course, another tool in your negotiations. Like the Freelance Fees Guide - a new edition of which is due out Real Soon Now - it can't prescribe but it can describe and it does reduce the inefficiency in the marketplace caused by lack of information.

There's one other thing that the union may be able to do, though it'd take some years. In Germany, a law passed last year recognises the imbalance in negotiating power between authors - who of course include photographers and reporters - and publishers. It does this by regulating contracts between us and them, setting minimum standards that apply where there is no collectively negotiated model agreement.

May's LFB meeting will focus on how freelance networks work and how best to make them work better. For details and links see See back page for details, and bring your ideas.

Last modified: 02 Apr 2003 - © 2003 contributors
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