The importance of being networked
Meetings mean money
"How to turn guys who hang around with rock bands into fighting phalanxes of the labour movement?" That was how London Freelance Branch joint-chair Simon Pirani closed a productive discussion on how freelances can band together to earn themselves more money.
The May branch meeting heard an encouraging case story from the network of freelance writers working for music magazines Q and Mojo who, by coming together in an informal email group, have secured themselves a string of impressive deals (see last month's Freelance).
Paul Du Noyer, now a freelance associate editor at Word and a long-time contributor to Q and Mojo, explained how, in 1995, a group of freelances from the two magazines got together after receiving an audacious rights-grabbing letter from parent company Emap. "It was a time when publishers were beginning to discern the emergence of digital media and seeking to 'clarify' the issue of rights," he said.
But instead of buckling, contributors met up and decided to fight their corner and arranged a series of meetings in upstairs rooms of pubs. A network was formed and a fightback began. "It had been quite frightening to get a letter from this mammoth corporation most of us depended on," admitted Du Noyer. "But we all knew each other socially, and were quite an experienced and stable core of contributors; we were not easily replaced, so we had a certain collective strength.
"It was assumed we were in a post-union culture but by treating us all collectively, [management] engendered a collective response." This collective strength ensured the copyright grab was resisted, and, assisted by email, the network grew into a "de facto chapel" (although the Emap performance division - called Metro at the time - didn't and doesn't recognise the union and, moreover, the majority of the freelance group weren't NUJ members).
The copyright issue was eventually resolved by the magazine's acceptance a) that freelance writers should retain their copyright, and b) that any website usage should be paid for, with a minimum of 10 per cent of the original fee.
Come the new decade, the network moved on to trying to tackle pay rates - which had been static for up to ten years. In the course of two amicable sets of negotiations, the feature rate has been improved from £180 per thousand words, where it stood in March 2002, to a standard minimum rate of £275 in 2003-4.
So what's the secret of the Q/Mojo network's success? Du Noyer felt the camaraderie created by the traditional pub meeting was crucial to emboldening people living otherwise atomised freelance working lives. Email was important too, not least as a tool of information, but no substitute for real-life gatherings. He also pointed out that simply by raising issues around rights and rates the group had given management an education on the facts of freelance life, and by doing so the company itself had become more sensitive to their concerns.
"I would recommend this sort of network to any group of people working for a specific company," concluded Du Noyer.
The meeting also heard some fondly recalled tales from the darkroom by photographer and LFB committee member Paul Clements, who lamented the disappearance of the "gossip and collective spirit" that he experienced in his first job at The Scotsman's old North Bridge building in Edinburgh in the mid-Nineties.
Here, too, standing firm against a copyright grab paid dividends for photographers (by refusing to sign away his rights, one was able to go on to start up his own agency). But a rot set in. The Scotsman moved to a less charming building in Holyrood, the emergence of digital photography supplanted the old dark room culture, and conditions declined as photographers left for pastures new.
Now, said Clements, who currently works in London for the Scottish Sunday Times and the Glasgow Herald, times are tougher at his old stamping ground. One title at Scotsman Publications now often employs students who are paid on a piecemeal basis as and when their work is published, and, he said, "it's quite possible that you could do six jobs a day and not get paid for them". Nonetheless, Clements maintained that there is still a strong collective spirit among photographers working for papers in Scotland and that can be built on.
But what of the fairness at work legislation, which has provided staffers with a valuable springboard for reclaiming their rights? How can that work for freelances? Freelance organiser John Toner sounded a cautious note: the legislation had enormous limitations, he said, as it did not compel employers to negotiate with freelances, but there was scope - where chapels were strong, or where people who worked for a particular employer came together - for our claims to be pressed. The meeting was also reminded of the potential of existing email networks, such as Indynet (for Independent contributors), UkSubs (for freelance sub-editors) and photographers' group EPUK to provide a platform on which to build. Networking, in this game, is all.