The New Yorker, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, Slate, Vice — whether at new media outlets or legacy publications, newsrooms across the country are unionizing. Most recently, 75 percent of the staff at The Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press signed union cards with The NewsGuild.
While these victories are welcome for staffers who were previously working without the protections of union membership, their collective bargaining units and contracts usually omit the lowest, yet largest, rung of the newsroom labor ladder: freelancers. And without organizing freelancers, journalists’ unions rest atop a shaky hierarchy of labor, which is bound to be upset.
Finding data on the number of freelancers is tricky. Figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics — which are the best available — show that there are currently about 37,995 reporters and correspondents employed as staffers by newspapers, publishers, broadcasters, and other outlets, while about 83,968 people are self-employed writers and authors, a category which includes those who write for digital news organizations and blogs. The bureau predicts that the number of employed reporters and correspondents will decrease by 10 percent through 2026, while the ranks of freelance writers and authors will grow by 8 percent during the same period. David Hill, a freelance journalist and vice president of the National Writers Union, is confident that “every single media outlet” uses freelance writers.
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“I don’t think anyone has good numbers on this,” says Hill. “Some might quibble with how we decide to define ‘journalist’ here, because there is a lot of freelance writing that exists in the grey area between what was maybe once referred to as blogging and what we may think of as journalism, especially online.”
Coming together to bargain collectively is key for freelancers because of the many professional difficulties they face, beginning with low pay. According to the BLS, the median pay for writers and authors was $61,820 in 2017, but that figure masks business expenses and benefits, such as health care, which freelancers must independently purchase.
Without regular work as columnists or contributing writers, freelancers must jump from assignment to assignment, pitching story ideas, negotiating rates, completing articles, and then hoping for full and timely payment. And when publications go under or change their business models, freelancers are left without any recourse but to hunt for the next opportunity.
Describing the issues faced by members of the National Writers Union, Hill says, “Their issues are the same as every freelance journalist’s: low rates, waiting for many months to get paid with no guarantee of when or if the check will arrive, and a general feeling that rates are too low to make a full-time living anymore without supplementing your freelance income somehow.”
Typically, unions focus on organizing a “collective bargaining unit,” which is a well-defined body of workers who are not considered freelancers, contractors, or temps. This is often seen by labor organizers as a strategic necessity for classifying workers as proper employees whose right to unionize is legally protected. Under current law, independent contractors don’t have collective bargaining rights; regulators have even used antitrust law to go after groups of contractors who attempt to organize.
Additionally, unions usually operate on dues collected from their members’ paychecks by their employers, in a fashion similar to payroll taxes. Freelancers typically do not have any deductions made from their payments, making dues collection a more onerous process.
A branch of the United Automobile Workers, the National Writers Union is one of the only labor unions open to freelance journalists. Without a well-defined collective bargaining unit nor access to the traditional means of collecting dues, it has been creative in its approach to organizing. Members are free to join or leave as they please and must opt into paying dues. The union counts about 850 journalists among its dues-paying members.
The union is not able to collectively bargain for these writers, since they don’t work for any one outlet, but members are attracted to its other services and benefits, such as providing individual or group legal representation in specific disputes, lobbying lawmakers for legislation protecting freelancers, and negotiating voluntary agreements with publications. Most recently, the National Writers Union reached an agreement with the socialist magazine Jacobin, stipulating minimum rates, kill fees, payment deadlines, and more.
The Freelancers Union operates in some similar ways, although it is technically a non-profit organization rather than a certified union. Executive Director Caitlin Pearce estimates that 93,750 of the organization’s members are writers or editors, including journalists. Membership is voluntary and free.
“Freelancers Union offers its members a voice on advocacy issues impacting the independent workforce, resources, education, and events helping freelancers grow their network and navigate the ups and downs of freelancing, and benefits including health, dental, life, disability, liability, and retirement,” says Pearce. The organization is funded by state and private grants, donations, and paid services — the last of which has led critics to accuse the Freelancers Union of being more interested in hawking insurance products than organizing workers.
Together with two dozen other workers’ organizations, the Freelancers Union and National Writers Union were able to lobby New York City to pass the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, which went into effect in 2017. The law includes provisions requiring written contracts for freelance work, mandating a 30-day deadline for payment, and awarding freelancers double damages in court. It is touted as providing the strongest protections for freelancers anywhere in the nation.
While the Freelance Isn’t Free Act is certainly the highest profile recent victory, there are ways beyond legislation that freelancers can exert their collective power. Earlier this month, 115 members of Study Hall, an online community of freelance journalists, announced that they would cease working with The Outline after the website suddenly fired a quarter of its staffers, providing an example of freelancers self-organizing independently from any union in the industry. Similar efforts with freelancers in other sectors, such as food couriers working for Uber, have succeeded where traditional unions have failed or feared to venture.
“The nuts and bolts of how to do this is very tricky, and nobody has figured out a perfect model yet,” says Hill of organizing freelance journalists. “Labor law works against us and forces us to be creative. Whatever union freelancers end up forming will be very non-traditional.”