Don't mourn, organise!
AS FREELANCES, most of us work alone; and most of the things that we can do as freelances who are trade unionists we do alone, too. It's not a picture of trade unionism which fits with the traditional (flat 'at, factory gate) image. Probably, neither the Tolpuddle Martyrs nor Joe Hill's International Workers of the World comrades would recognise it. But it works.
When we each refuse to work for less than the Rate for the Job, we're probably acting from a personal determination not to sell our work for much less than it's worth. When we each reject the "Superhighway Robbery" extortion of our rights in our work, we're likely to be acting from personal outrage. We are, after all, each others' competitors as well as colleagues. By those individual statements, though, we make it that much harder for publishers and producers to push rates down for everyone, and we make it that much harder for them to treat us and our work as the rag-trade treats out-workers and the things they sew.
But there are limits. Particularly, individuals who reject oppressive contracts can be, and occasionally are, picked off.
One member, having sued the Guardian over unauthorised re-use of work, received a letter announcing that commissioning editors had been instructed to refuse further pieces.
Members in such positions do often end up financially better off. This merely demonstrates how poor and perverse pay from the "qualities" is. (Compare what you'd get for six months' work on a District Council audit, with... let's not name names.)
We're much more likely to succeed if we can show managements that the majority of the freelances are taking a collective stand.
London Freelance Branch does what it can to support members' individual stands.
At our June meeting, for example, we had a lively discussion, kicked off by photographer Paul Halloran, on negotiating fees upwards: "If you take the rate you're offered, you're not really a freelance; you're more like the people who turn up at the docks waiting to be picked."
Paul's major tip is this: set your own floor rate. Divide your annual expenses over no more than two or three billable days per week. If you charged less, you'd be making a loss.
In May, we heard from the freelances at Macmillan. They have for years had a strong network, and it works. True, their task is easier in the face of an "essentially paternal" management style, which seems to have survived the sale of the company by the Macmillan family. (See box above)
Solidarity can work in the face of a soul-free management of bean-counters, too. When EMAP first issued its "all rights, throughout the Universe" copyright-grabbing contracts to freelances in 1995, a few outraged freelances pooled their address books and called a meeting. Thirty came.
Within months, 150 EMAP freelances, including most of the names without whom the magazines would wither, had signed a letter rejecting the management move. Two years on, EMAP contributors are in much better shape than freelances elsewhere.
Let's hope that the Guardian contributors (lead story) can achieve similar momentum.
This is, essentially, do-it-yourself trade unionism. The Branch and the Union centrally will do what we can can to support such action. It can only happen, though, at the initiative of the people directly involved. It could be you.
The "Publisher of the Month" feature at Branch meetings offers a place and a time to meet others working for the same publisher. If you need to discuss things with staff jouralists, remember that freelances are now entitled to go to chapel meetings. You can use the Freelance, too: write a paragraph asking others to get in touch and we will forward the replies. We'll protect your identity all the way to the European Court if you ask.
"Underground" organisation? Sometimes this feels like re-inventing trade unionism from a standing start. Those agricultural workers in Tolpuddle, Dorset were also workers-for-hire, also isolated, also competitors at the hiring fair, when they started. And (unless Jack Straw's keeping a secret) thanks to them we don't have to worry about one-way tickets to Australia.
BY Mike Holderness
© 1997 NUJ & contributors
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