Freelances activated

BISHOP George Berkeley understood modern freelancing, Jenny Vaughan suggested to a freelance activists' conference, despite being a sceptical 18th-century philosopher. If a freelance taps on a keyboard, Jenny asked the gathering in Manchester on 13 November, and no editor sees her, does she exist? The evidence is that editors hold the belief that we exist only at the moment when our words or pictures are due.

Tim Dawson opens the conference; © Adam Christie
Tim Dawson opens the conference

Freelance editor Mike Holderness had earlier listed some misconceptions that others hold about freelances. Freelances are scabs-in-waiting, some think, despite the record of actual solidarity by freelances with staff colleagues on strike. Freelances are petit-bourgeois individualists and not Proper Workers. Freelances get up when we please, pay no tax, work when we feel like it - oddly, some of the things some people say about Gypsies. And, as Jenny suggested, to almost everyone we are mysterious creatures who live under stones until summoned.

We'd just had a response to a briefing from Thompsons, the union's solicitors, on the tangled legal aspects of the question "What do we mean by freelance?" Mike summarised: particularly when negotiating agreements, we have to be aware that different freelances have different interests. For example, there are "experts" in fields too recherché for any paper to have a dedicated staffer, who are unambiguously independent contractors; and there are people who mainly work shifts, who may well have rights as "workers". And the latter include those who want to be freelance as well as people who would rather be employed.

Despite the perception problems and this complexity, the conference was a resounding success. General Secretary Jeremy Dear announced plans for a Freelance Day of Action next year - discussions on which London Freelance Branch will contribute to in January 2005. Longtime activist Andrew Wiard spoke forcefully of the need for proper union services for photographers, including a dedicated Photographers' Fees Guide and Photographers' Organiser. Below are impressions from four attendees.

Left to right: Phil Sutcliffe, Joyce MacMillan, Jenny Vaughan and Chris Wheal; © Adam Christie
Left to right: Phil Sutcliffe, Joyce MacMillan, Jenny Vaughan and Chris Wheal

Our most powerful tool

It was a significant and well-planned conference. Two positives and one negative stood out for me.

I was pleased that substantial time was given over to the basic question - what is a freelance? It's tempting to believe our own preconceptions, and assume it's a simple question, but the answer appears substantially more complex. Work patterns are different than they were five or ten years ago. The Freelance Wellbeing report reinforced that, producing useful background information, which is what's needed if freelance needs are to be served.

It's also good to see the NUJ getting serious about networks. They are rapidly becoming the most powerful tool for freelance organisation. I'd like to see them integrated into union activities, so that the union encourages networks to do what they're good at, and fills in the gaps where there are things that networks do less well.

On the negative side, something seems to have happened to the NUJ's attitude to copyright. It's no longer near the top of the list of important issues, it seems from listening to the big cheeses. One delegate even told me they thought the battle fhad been lost and it was time to move on. And there were one or two errors from the platform on copyright law. If we really have lost the plot on this, that's disastrous. Copyright is freelances' most important legal ally - to abandon it is suicidal. I noticed that it was all writers who seemed untroubled by this issue. Perhaps they should listen to the photographers on this subject.

I was activated

The first thing that struck me about the conference was the name. It wasn't just a Freelance Conference but a Freelance Activists' Conference. It set the tone throughout the weekend and I found it motivational to us the freelances. It was how we could - and should - get activated.

What also struck me was the line: "It's time to start thinking what we can do for the union and not just what the union can do for us". I think we forget how we, as individuals, can contribute. And for me one of the most important things that emerged from the two days is that freelances must get more informed and empowered - that is, be more aware of their rights and that, for example, their work could be a valuable commodity that they could reuse and resell themselves.

Issues that came up which were close to my heart were, of course, rates of pay and copyright grabbing contracts. And it was identified that we must use our collective strength to put changes in motion.

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the results of the Freelance Wellbeing Survey, but I was struck by how many of the issues identified I could relate to. And how many were just that: issues.

What can we do about poorly attended Branch meetings across the board (and the continent)? In the Netherlands, I hear from individuals that attendance is low because of there being so much internal union business to take care of before they have the chance to socialise, network and compare experiences. Many journalists who have joined the NUJ aren't involved in how the NUJ operates as they simply haven't been informed, or don't find it in their interest to find out. Attendance, I think, has probably been slightly better for us in the Netherlands since we introduced holding relevant workshops and presentations by our members.

The conference afforded a wonderful opportunity to meet other freelances and share (all too similar) experiences, and to get to know some of the officers from the NUJ. What I would have liked, however, was perhaps an hour each day, solely for meeting other freelances - at mealtimes you can't easily move about. It might be useful to set up cross-branch networking by e{mail or online forum for all freelances (or for Branch officers?)

The overall organisation of the weekend was superb. I know there were problems with disability access but that can be rectified in future.

I was very impressed with the travel arrangements made for me and the variation (and choice) of the talks. Although the programme was quite intense I enjoyed all of the talks and workshops and felt I had benefited from them. The hotel was comfortable, the lunch provided during the day (including vegetarian options) was also superb, as was the choice of the tapas bar during Saturday evening. When something like this is really well organised and runs smoothly, it just means you can focus all your energy on the matters in hand.

All in all: a great initiative! I came away feeling inspired and activated. Thanks John and Pamela! I would love it if there was a Freelance Activists' Conference annually.

Agreements and alarm

I joined the NUJ just over a year ago and I went to learn, to network and perhaps to volunteer.

As a fan of Victorian architecture and social history I adored the Britannia Hotel and the Mechanics institute and found the whole area a fine example of urban regeneration. As a professional working with blind and disabled people I was appalled. The hotel was inaccessible to wheelchairs and so very awkward for anyone with walking difficulties that the management could well have been prosecuted under the Disability Discrimination Act.

Did I learn anything? Apart from a few bits on copyright, not a lot, though there were some excellent ideas from the floor.

I particularly liked the idea of negotiating freelance rates across the board with proprietors. Local editors have a limited budget and little room to negotiate so it would do a lot for our working relationships if we could simply say, "First British Serial Rights offered at NUJ rates."

The Freelance Wellbeing survey was particularly well done, and highlighted many of the problems of working alone. The high incidence of depression ought to be of concern. I feel though, that it might have only exposed the tip of the iceberg - though a 4 per cent response rate might be good in market research, it is alarmingly low for an in-house survey of professional attitudes. Were the other 96 per cent freelance members too depressed to answer? Maybe somebody ought to get out there and see.

I was surprised that nobody mentioned the real force that is driving freelance rates and staff salaries down. Vast hordes of graduates in journalism are being churned out annually by our universities, many to go straight into unpaid trainee posts. If proprietors can get a trainee for nothing, why pay a freelance?  

Access and output

It was a strange home-coming for me to go to the Manchester Mechanics Institute, a landmark in the history of the trade union movement. It was moving to see the exquisite stained glass panels with jewelled colours basking in some rare Mancunian sunlight, depicting various trade union banners where before there had been dust and debris. I'm sure there is a lesson for today's trade union movement there somewhere.

The last time I was there, in the 1980s, I was wearing a hard hat when it was a building site, as long before I became a wheelchair user I produced a BBC breakfast show package on the building's renovation. Since then I have been a TUC industrial relations tutor, a member of the Freelance and Broadcasting Industrial Councils and Vice-Chair of the Equality Council. Now I was the only wheelchair user at the conference. I was disappointed to find on my arrival at the Britannia Hotel that I had to go round the back into a grotty somewhat pongy narrow entrance off a narrow back street. Just to add to matters only one public lift was working so getting out of the building took quite some time. My conference thrills began the night before it opened, when I was shocked to find the very steep black indoor ramp suitable for wannabe skiers, complete with the odd cabbage leaf, as I headed at considerable speed for the bowels of the building!

Especially after the successful case brought by Ju Gosling for compensation against the union over conference access issues, I had hoped that the union would have learned more about access and investigated basic things like the entrance, let alone the need for an depth check on access and attitudes at a venue. Under the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, service providers need to have disability awareness training based on the social model of disability, having lifts is not enough. The union needs to get proper access audits conducted on venues by an experienced disabled person who knows the long list of checks to make, before the union confirms bookings.

Freelance organiser John Toner told me: "The agency did not assure us it was accessible. It's just that we've used the Britannia (Hotel) before. If it was not accessible then it is our fault."

The union also needs to systematically ensure that any plans for a bevy after all conferences and any evening meal or gathering are also at genuinely accessible venues.

HOWEVER, although rather tired after difficulties in sleeping in my cold room, I was delighted that the conference was being held and welcomed the opportunity to meet other freelances and learn how others were addressing challenges like low pay and isolation, especially for those of us working mainly from home.

The workshops were well-facilitated and creative. I enjoyed participating, and meeting some excellent people who are also talented trade unionists.

The Freelance Wellbeing study on freelances' working and life styles was important and interesting. Well done to those who initiated it and carried it out. I look forward to studying it in more detail. As an experienced negotiator, mediator, advocate and therapeutic counsellor I am particularly aware of the kind of issues it raised.

We need to consider making freelances' conferences "tabling bodies", so that discussions can more readily be turned into specific actions through motions to Annual Delegate Meeting.

Given that so many members of the union are freelance it is even more important than ever that freelances, whose rates of pay are too often low, are given a strong voice in the union.

The more we can do to make freelances aware of good and bad contracts and practices the better.

Conclusions

In summing up, Freelance Organiser John Toner recalled that the first trade union leader who had inspired him was Stuart Macintosh, who had been at the conference. "The union is not a meeting, nor a building, nor me nor even the General Secretary," he observed: "we are employees and you are our employers and you are - by syllogism - the union. I am therefore a bureaucrat. As such, I have a constant debate with myself: "what would I have thought of that when I was an activist?"

Freelance Industrial Council and this conference make sure the bureaucrat in John "does not sell down the activist in me. I would be lost without them." The great strength of the NUJ, he said, is that the members still actually make the decisions. Someone had earlier suggested "Ask not what your union can do for you, but what you can do for your union". John concluded with a complementary quote from Robert Kennedy: "Some people look at what is and say 'Why?'; I look at what isn't and say 'Why Not?'"

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