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 membership.

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.

Last modified: 17 August 2004 - © 2004 contributors
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