All together now...

WE ARE "living, breathing contradictions in terms, as self-employed trade unionists," as Phil Sutcliffe told the June London Freelance Branch meeting. So: how do we go about organising to improve our working conditions?

He started by outlining the story of the Q/Mojo contributors' group, which has been spectacularly successful at this. Back in 1995, in common with contributors to other parts of the EMAP publishing empire, they were one of the first groups to be attacked by copyright grabs. They included, however, a small group of people who knew each other, who got together and said "no, we're not signing this, are we?" That group wrote to all the people they knew - and got more than 100 freelances saying they wouldn't sign. EMAP Performance backed down.

Probably the key to getting going was that there was the nucleus of a group, and that they were stirred by an attack.

Then the group went dormant for three years, until someone got up and said "let's do something about our rates!" These hadn't been increased since 1990's £180 a thousand. Email now speeded things up no end. The group obtained lists of addresses and quickly made contact with 150 people to put together proposals for a pay claim. Many members of list are not NUJ members - but they behave like trade unionists, which counts.

The pay claim was unheard of. There had never been a freelance agreement at Metro. The group expected to hear two words, the second of which was "off". But, "haven't we increased pay for 10 years?" management asked: "we must have a look at that."

The group has now concluded its third annual pay agreement. The second raised word rates to £250 per 1000 and £275 for features. The NUJ is still only officially recognised at EMAP Healthcare. Talks are launched by a letter signed by around 200 freelance writers.

The group expects the third round to produce, in addition to the pay deal, a comprehensive licence agreement with minimum percentage uplifts for re-use in-house, for foreign editions of certain whole mags, for straight (external) syndication and possibly for digital uses.

This network approach has also worked at Rough Guides. But freelances try it so rarely, Phil said. "Somehow we have to activate this kind of thing. It is hard work for those involved, but not overwhelming, with a spurt every 12 months."

Last time the NUJ had large numbers of house agreements covering terms for staff journalists, most had freelance agreements bolted on the side. Now we're getting staff agreements again, but not freelance agreements.

We're not backed by the legal right to negotiate that staff members get following a recognition ballot. So we have to do something else. Phil is dubious that "industrial muscle" - for example a wave of strikes - is a practical proposition for freelances. But we do have value, we have worth, through the wonderful quality of the work we do, and we do have strength that comes from that. London Freelance Branch and its 3300 members need to think about what we want. Do we want minimum rates first? Or is protecting copyright our initial priority? Or, for example, making sure our expenses are guaranteed?

How do we generate the collective energy and the optimism that backs that up? "It's about being strong individuals in a strong group," Phil concluded.

James Mason is a member of the Reed Business Information (RBI) chapel committee. He started out doing work experience on women's titles while at college, then pitched for work as freelance designer - so he had work straight away when he finished. He thinks the freelances at EMAP Metro are an example to the staff there - "if these people who can just be booted out can organise, why can't you? "

"I don't think Reed could function without freelances," he said: "they know that if you didn't show up the mags wouldn't come out."

The NUJ was re-recognised in 2000. The stronger the Branch becomes, the more it can push for in house agreements. They are talking with the Freelance Organiser about guidelines for freelances. Going straight for minimum rates agreements could frighten RBI off straight away. So they're looking at copyright, and rates for re-use of words and photos.

As an art director, James makes sure that photographers always keep their copyright. RBI tried a grab on Goal, and the art department said "we want to use these photographers, they don't sign away their rights, and we're not going to not use them."

A lot depends on relationships you have with the people you work with, and freelances may not appreciate how much flexibility their clients may have. "We need a rise," said some freelances: "Put £160 not £150 for the shift," said a director who had better remain anonymous, "and I'll pay it."

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