[Freelance]

The road back to recognition --

Better living through mathematics?

TRADE UNION representation will be a right, if a new New Labour government is indeed elected a fortnight from now. The devil is going to be in the details, and the devil will be fearsome. Trade union organisers may find they need refresher courses in the mathematics of elementary set theory and linear optimisation techniques.

The rule, hastily retrieved from Party internal documents in the face of an early April anti-union challenge from the Tories, will be apparently simple. If one more than 50 per cent of the workers vote that they want trade union bargaining rights, they get them.

The first catch is in the apparently obvious phrase "the workers". Which workers?

Say Moloch Magazines plc has two titles: the Saggar-Maker's Bottom-Knocker and Post-Modern Technology. Each has: eight administrative staff; three production staff belonging to the GPMU; three staff journalists eligible for NUJ membership; six potential NUJ members on recurrent short-term contracts; six potential NUJ freelance members who contribute to practically every issue without any written contract; and a nimbus of occasional freelances.

The Black-Country-based staff of the ceramics trade paper SMBK are solid trades unionists. The Camden-based editorial staff of PMTare, not to put too fine a point on it, raving individualists to a person. The position for the contract workers is reversed.

You are an NUJ organiser. What do you do?

Do you gamble on a company-wide vote, knowing that Moloch management knows the balance is close and that they have only to pick off a few people to defeat you? Or do you concentrate on SMBK, knowing that in practice this will mean no recognition at PMT for years to come?

Do you (can you?) organise a cross-union ballot, or one among the journalists only?

If you choose well, Moloch will try to prevent you organising a ballot on that basis. New Labour made it clear, under pressure from Tories trying to present the proposals as a bonanza for imagined cigar-chomping trade union bosses, that its model is US labor law. There is a difference: in the UK, there is no definition of the "relevant bargaining unit". That will be left to judges, who will hear challenges from employers.

Will or should the NUJ campaign for freelances to be included in such ballots? What will or should be the definition of a freelance eligible to vote for representation? On the one hand, it would be unjust if employers could defeat ballots simply by putting all the suspected trade union sympathisers on short-term contracts. On the other, it would be ridiculous if anti-union employers could commission tiny pieces from dozens of known anti-union individuals in order to out-vote the staff.

The only allies which spring to mind -- the trades unions which can match the NUJ's understanding of freelance issues (such as it is) -- are the entertainment union BECTU and the division of MSF which represents contract computer workers.

Even when the question of who can vote is settled, the dust won't be. Ten years ago the Freelance editor watched the staff of a small Philadelphia TV station suffer a barrage of management bullying and bribery, leading to a narrow defeat in their ballot for trade union representation.

All ideas on how to deal with this mess will be gratefully received.

BY Mike Holderness


6 April 1997
Not published
on paper

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