Special Update: Canadian Freelance Union

By Tracey Arial

The second meeting of the Canadian Freelance Union (CFU) took place on the second floor of the Claddagh Pub on Thursday, May 31. Those of us who attended had a great conversation and three people signed up to become CFU founding members on the spot. Between us, we represented at least five different organizations, including PWAC, L’Association des journalistes indépendants du Québec (L’AJIQ), the Quebec Writer’s Federation (QWF) and the Montreal Press Club. Thanks to all who attended. Enthusiasm was so great, I plan to hold another meeting in the near future.

In the meantime, here’s some of what we discussed:

Goal of the CFU

We are in the midst of creating an organization that will use collective action to increase freelance rates and improve working conditions. Freelance rates have dropped a whopping 163% in the last three decades, while contracts are now removing control of material from independent workers’ hands (i.e., waiving moral rights) while transferring legal liability of published works to their authors (i.e., indemnifying publishers). At the same time, corporate cost-cutting measures means less stringent care in making sure that published works are accurate with fact-checking systems, etc.

Relationship with the CEP

The National Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union (CEP) shares our goal because newspapers across the country are cutting staff and filling space with cheap freelance content. To protect jobs, freelance rates need to match or beat those of full-time staff, plus 40% to cover additional pensions and benefits.

The CEP is helping us organize under their umbrella as local 2040, an identity that members will vote on at an official founding conference now scheduled for the fall. In the meantime, the $25 each person has paid is being put into a segregated account. (If local 2040 does not officially form for any reason, that money will be returned to individuals.)

What’s different about this?

More than 20 per cent of union members across Canada are currently self-employed, but they function within regional locals made up of a majority of staff people. We’re attempting to create one single local of independent workers, something that’s brand new in the modern world of unions. This will hopefully prevent freelancers from being hurt within the union by staff-set rules.

What can unions do?

Once established, the Canadian Freelance Union could form a bargaining unit with publishers and broadcasters to establish boundaries around licensed use of copyrighted material, escalating payments for poly-publishing of intellectual property, payment schedules that are comparable to existing rates and restricted use of non-union members.

To make this happen, we’ll use a “lead bargaining strategy” where we only target one company at a time. Some sort of budget will have to be set up to compensate freelancers who have to forego income, but hopefully most of us will make it up in the long term and by doing more work for our other clients. The CEP is also exploring how to leverage the advantages of their large membership in areas like health and dental benefits, long term disability plans, legal and accounting services, group RRSP plans, skills and training programs and job banks. Another union idea that might be adapted for us is a hiring hall, in which members register their skills and availability and get called into jobs by employers. Such a system could help open new markets and training for freelancers since it would force editors to work with new freelancers on a regular basis and make joint staff-union training beneficial for both sides.

What does the CFU plan to do about the new Gazette contract?

Peter Murdoch says the CEP is very concerned about the Gazette freelancer contract and has people looking at it. For the moment, the CFU isn’t well-enough established to choose CanWest as our target in a lead bargaining strategy, so we can’t even suggest that freelancers don’t sign the contract or try modifying the contract, as we have no options to offer if they don’t sign, and we can’t take on the liability if someone loses work because of our advice.

Freelancers who do choose to sign the new contract should know that they are still welcome within union ranks and we won’t be sharing our lists with anyone.

Why you should join now (if you haven’t already)

“Organizing independent contributors is the obvious response to media concentration,” said Vincent Mosco, a professor and Canada Research Chair in Communication and Society at Queens, during the annual PWAC meeting. Dr. Mosco has written to colleagues around the world about our movement and they have responded that they are inspired to create similar groups elsewhere. In the past, such guild movements have led not only to better pay and working conditions for freelancers, but also better ethics (a good wage tends to limit possible conflicts of interest); better journalism (limiting marketing frenzies tend to allow one to concentrate on quality) and democratic governance (people who have time to live tend to get involved to ensure their values are represented in such organizations.)

I think these are goals that anyone can sign on to, and I hope you do too. To join me in becoming a founding member of local 2040, please send a $25 cheque to the CEP – Canadian Freelance Union, 301 Laurier Avenue West, Ottawa, ON, K1P 6M6.

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