Taking freelances to the heart of the NUJ:
More a movement than a meeting
FREELANCES can -- and must -- work together effectively, if we are to create a union that can tackle tomorrow's issues, as well as today's and yesterday's. That was the
Freelance photographer Andrew Wiard set the scene in the opening session on copyright. In the UK Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, freelance photographers won control and ownership of their work because the publishers had been half asleep in the years leading up to it. "Next time they will be prepared," Andrew warned. And the crucial battles will be fought in Europe or beyond, not Dublin and Westminster. Getting lobbyists to decision-makers will take more than bus fares.
If the NUJ is to protect freelance copyright -- and fight battles on behalf of staff journalists that will be decided internationally -- it will have to have the money to pay for sustained lobbying, for years, even decades, against corporations that are wealthier than nations. Operating in this global snakepit is a daunting prospect financially, but almost more daunting is the mindshift that will have to take place in the union to make it possible. What the conference managed to convey was that, just maybe, this is not a mad dream but an achievable project.
Sixty freelance journalists -- writers, photographers, broadcasters, subs, a cartoonist, a picture researcher -- came to the conference because they need the union and they want it to serve their interests. They explored things they want from the union in the workshops: information and training so we can negotiate and market ourselves better; a forum to meet and network; a legal service that we can rely on in that moment of crisis; advice on contracts; a heavy hand to back us up when invoices don't get paid.
The enthusiasm and determination with which all those attending got down to work -- and stayed at work -- shows that we are dealing with real needs, and ones that people are prepared to put in a lot of graft to achieve.
And if the 60 freelance journalists gathered in Dublin want and need these things, so will other freelance journalists. And we know there are many thousands of them out there. Yet rather than being out there, they could be in the union, and paying subscriptions. (The latest figures show that last year the freelance sector was the only sector where more people left the union than joined -- a powerful message there about what the union is not doing, currently.) Extra resources could carry the whole union on a beneficial tide of expanding activity.
But before that can happen, the union has to drop any "us and them" attitude to freelances. Just because we are not employees, it doesn't mean that we are not good trade unionists. Some -- just some -- of our issues are different: they must not be treated as of lesser importance than the "real" staff issues.
Freelances have something to teach the rest of the union, too. Because we work for ourselves, our time is money. We are impatient with meetings that don't achieve things and have no time for posturing and politicking. As one speaker said after the conference: "This is best thing the union has done for years."
What was it that we done? We got together. We tried hard to make the event as inclusive as possible, and to bring in all
We planned a programme that reflected everyday working concerns -- copyright theft in Britain, the threat to freelance agreements in Ireand from competition law, how to make more money, how to combine with other freelances to improve conditions, how to broaden the appeal of the union. We structured it so all could contribute.
Most importantly, we insisted that the talk led straight to plans for action. Those will be published for the union's annual conference in late March.
Perhaps the enduring message from the conference is that we need to think and plan better as freelances within the union. We need to keep pressing our officials and each of the national and industrial councils on how they represent freelances. We need to ask members standing for election whether they will be attuned to our causes, as well as staff issues. And because of the Dublin conference, we can start to do this immediately. We have our proposals for action.
If they take up our challenge, they will be helping to take freelances to the heart of the NUJ, where we belong. Once we're there, the union will be the better for it. The Dublin conference leaves no doubt of that.
© 1998 NUJ & contributors