Two kinds of freelance, no contradiction
That was a very interesting report
in the August issue about the EMAP freelance network, something I've
long admired, but I'd like to take up a couple of points raised, hopefully
to further the general discussion the union is at long last starting to
have over its freelance work.
I'm not convinced self-employed trade unionists are a contradiction in
terms, although Phil Sutcliffe was probably using the phrase more as a
soundbite to kick off discussion than as an absolutely accurate observation.
But when you say that what counts is that members of the network behave like
trade unionists rather than actually become members it does worry me,
especially as the statement comes as part of the editorial of an NUJ
publication. Surely acting like a trade unionist without being a union
member is a contradiction in terms.
Of course, we want everyone to behave in what we could term a progressive
manner, but I'm sure there are many NUJ members who will ask why they should
pay their fees and work to strengthen the union if the union is happy to
provide full assistance to non-members. I'm not arguing for an exclusivist
approach, but surely our aim should be to recruit non-members by working to
convince them of the professional and industrial benefits of union
There are few people who argue that "a wave of strikes" is the main,
or indeed the only, way for freelances, or anyone else for that matter, to
achieve their objectives. This Aunt Sally has all too frequently been put up
by some freelance activists when we've tried to discuss the way we work.
Much of the latter part of the article fails to recognise the fundamental
difference between freelances who are self-employed experts and freelances
who are casual workers - and in my opinion it's this failure to understand
the very different priorities of the two groups of workers that sometimes
causes us problems.
The article appears to downplay the importance of achieving minimum rates in
favour of concentrating on copyright and expenses. The answer to which is
the more important is "It depends where you're coming from". And when RBI's
James Mason asks of staff "if these people who can just be booted out can
organise, why can't you?", the answer is because too often staff can just be
booted out too, with the threat of drafting in cheaper freelances working
for below the minimum rate used to keep them in line.
Some freelances, like the Reed ones James mentions, or like the EMAP music
writers and photographers, can dig their heels in because the company knows
they are experts whose skills they need and whose contacts can't be bought
in from elsewhere. Others, like casual sub-editors or designers, don't have
the same option, so look to more traditional solutions.
It's all very well talking about the need to be a strong individual in a
strong group, but we have to understand that not everyone has the same
strength - it all depends on the situation they are in. We should be beyond
thinking that one approach fits all situations. And anyway, aren't unions
about banding together to help weaker individuals?
We have to decide if we want to be a union which caters only for those in
the strongest positions, or a union which aims to strengthen the position of
all our members.