We want our share

WHAT DO freelances want from the union? Overwhelmingly, instant competent advice in crises - and professional support to organise ourselves on the longer-term issues. Here, long-standing activist Andrew Wiard raises some points for discussion on freelances getting our fair share of the union's resources.

The numbers may not be exact - over the next couple of months others will produce precise proposals. But the Freelance thinks it worthwhile to kick off debate right now. It needs to be stressed that this is an individual contribution to that debate and not an agreed position. Your responses are awaited.

IT'S TIME for freelances to get the service they pay for; the services they are entitled to receive and do not get. The NUJ gives members little direct service, freelances included, using most of its resources centrally. Its refusal to fill the full-time post of Freelance Organiser was unacceptable, but unavoidable, during its years of financial crisis. We, the members, solved this crisis by pouring our contributions into the Union and getting little in return.

Now the financial crisis is over, but another crisis has left freelances with no union official organiser. Crises can be opportunities. What can be achieved, at this time when new ideas and practices are unavoidable?

Let's see what happens to the budget if we do. Let's start with what we put into the Union. Taking a conservative figure of 5500 freelances, we are between 25% and 30% of the paying members, and put something like £700,000 a year into central funds. If non-staff members of staff branches (for example those on short-term contracts) are included, the total number of freelances approaches 50%, providing nearly one million pounds.

What do we get back directly? We get the freelance administrator, and we got a large share of the Deputy General Secretary's and his secretary's time. The Freelance Industrial Council (FIC) has a budget of £20,000 - most of which is the cost simply of existing as a democratic body. A few thousand more goes back to freelance branches. And there's the cost of the Freelance.

However you add that up, it comes to no more than £200,000. If we take my lower figure of £700,000 in contributions, that leaves about £500,000 being used centrally - on essentials, of course, such as membership services, major legal test cases, Annual Delegate Meetings, the Journalist and so on. But do we really get our money's worth? This is what happens when budgets start with central services - we get left with what's left.

Let's try budgeting by putting ourselves first for a change. The first thing we need is a number of organisers. Organisers who do not deal with freelances as one of a long list of problems, but who work full-time on freelance affairs, with a strategy, specialist knowledge and experience; the only way to get the job done. We need a full-time overall freelance organiser. We need someone with legal acumen full-time fighting campaigns and legal cases where necessary. We need an organiser fighting the copyright campaign full-time.

There are many more problems to be dealt with. For instance, the organisation of photographers has been overlooked for years. But I think these three positions are the minimum that is essential now. Let's say they would cost £165,000. Add the freelance administrator and secretarial support: another £50,000. Double the FIC budget: £40,000. Add a proper publication budget, say £30,000. Increase funds for freelance branches, and let's have £60,000 for campaigning and fighting legal cases.

We could all argue about such figures, or priorities. My point is that my total freelance expenditure here is less than half our total contribution to the union. While providing for freelances to get organised at last, I'm leaving over £350,000 for use by the union centrally. (If, by the way, I took my higher figure of 40% of paying members being freelance, I think we could afford another long-overdue organiser - someone working full time on the issue of short-term contracts.)

We freelances are not the only ones not getting their money's worth. If all sections of the union had similar budgets, that would leave the union centrally with over half our contributions: a total of over one and a half million pounds. Now, I think that is quite enough. If not, then a radical re-organisation is needed.

The current balance between central expenditure and direct services to members is wrong. The use of resources centrally needs to be re-thought.

That's a major problem for us as union members, which we need to address urgently, but it's not a specifically freelance problem. As freelances, we should no longer be justifying our expenditure to the union. It should be justifying its expenditure to us.

A proper budget for freelance organisation is now a matter of urgency. We can't stand still. Since June 1993 freelance membership has grown by 20% (according to central membership records).

Either we let things slide, or we use the resource we are already paying for to provide better services, which will result in further increases in freelance membership. Freelance organisers would have to bring in only about 400 new members each to pay for themselves!

It is against this background that we should consider the immediate problem of the Free<->lance Organiser voted for by successive Annual Delegate Meetings. We shouldn't waste any time on this. We need one now.

The post should be advertised immediately - and let's be clear that this is only the first step, not the last, towards giving us the resources we need and which are rightfully ours. I think FIC should now work out a long-term plan to see that we get them.

I think the next step should be a second organiser. How could that be paid for? The union has a current surplus of £330,000. One third of a million pounds - earmarked for restoring the fighting fund to one million pounds before money is spent on anything else.

While I support a fighting fund, doing this now is an appalling diversion of resources - away from the battles we are currently fighting towards those that we are not.

There have been no disputes, in the traditional sense of strikes requiring strike pay, for over a year. Vital campaigns have been starved of funds.

The one million pound fighting fund is now replacing the financial crisis as the reason why nothing can ever get done, and why we can't have organisers. I think this policy should be reversed at the earliest possible opportunity, to provide what both staff and freelances really need - more organisers, now.

BY Andrew Wiard

Jan/Feb 1998

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