Canadian Freelance Union tackles digitization myths, freelancer mentality and workers' rights

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"We're setting the floor on pay and contract rights, for all self-employed communications workers," says Michael O'Reilly,  President of the Canadian Freelance Union (CFU). "The floor, not the ceiling."

O'Reilly makes this claim with the 300,000 strong Unifor standing behind him.

Periodical writers, book writers, online writers, journalists, illustrators, photographers, independent filmmakers and people in public relations: the CFU, the result of the, now defunct, Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP) campaign that began issuing memberships in late 2009, is aptly named.

With approximately 250 members in its ranks, Michael is the sole staffer of the CFU. He manages the day-to-day affairs and calls upon the Unifor union whenever additional resources are needed, such as with contract disputes. Unionizing people who essentially run their own businesses, often at home and from a computer, is a bit of a novelty in the world of labour, but the reasons for this development are hard to refute.

"I'm a long-time professional writer," says O'Reilly. "I mostly write for periodicals and have done it full-time since about 1990. A writer's income hasn't risen since the 1980s, it hasn't even kept pace with inflation. It wasn't nefariousness that caused this, it was market mechanics. Media got big, we stayed small."

O'Reilly runs the numbers: the median income for a freelance journalist in the 1980s was $28,000. If it had simply risen with inflation, today it would be $50,000. Yet according to a Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) survey in 2006, the same person today is lucky to make half that. Nearly 40 per cent of professional writers can't reach the poverty line with their craft alone -- and that's excluding the casual blogger.

How is this happening in the "Age of Information?"

Much has been said of the decline of the print industry and its transition to digitized content, it's often cited to explain poor compensation. Certainly the industry has had its challenges -- the newest one being Smartphone adoption, with small screens and thus smaller advertising space -- but if the industry has struggled with profitability, it has thrown more than the printing press overboard to stay afloat.

Postmedia is Canada's two year old media conglomerate, incorporating every major newspaper in the country. It's shuttering print shops, out-sourcing work, swapping portions of pensions for stock options and aggressively developing online content. The demand is there, but it's being demanded for in the new medium.

Postmedia's first report in 2011 states unequivocally that employee compensation is the primary cost to roll back -- the numerous printers in a world where fewer people read print. Postmedia's second  report in 2012 highlights debt repayment, the sale of buildings and rising online subscriptions. But if property is being offloaded and paperworkers are bearing the cuts, how would any of this affect an article or a photo's worth?

Statistics Canada conducts a now bi-annual survey of the Periodical and Publishing industry's revenues and expenses. From 2004-2011 the industry posted year over year profits averaging ten per cent (excluding returns on investments.) Even the crash in 2009 manages a margin of 5.7 per cent.

In 2005, a periodical would slate almost half (45 per cent) of its revenue for wages and salaries; freelancers were paid five per cent of the sum, despite being one fifth (18 per cent) of the workforce.

In 2011 the numbers shrank even further: 35 per cent is set for compensation, and only 2.5 per cent goes to "commissions paid to non-employees" or freelancers.

For photographers, journalists, columnists and the like, it's a far cry from the 1970s. Where a freelancer only relinquished specific rights if asked, such as "first-print," and was compensated for subsequent re-use. Or "kill-fees," a mechanism that ensured contributers were paid 50 per cent of a cancelled assignment's original payout.

And so the story goes: pay stagnated in the 1980s, prior to the internet's widespread adoption. Contract rights were reduced in the mid-1990s, prior to news outlets exploding online. And the push for free content dubbed "citizen journalism" emerged before smartphones could take a bite out of online reading. Every step of the way, the downward trend for freelancers has occurred before changes in technology could legitimize it, busting the industry's myth of cause and effect.

O'Reilly says he didn't hold much interest in unions until the mid-1990s, when publishers began demanding full copyright. He was a member of PWAC and sat as President for some time, when he began talking with the CEP. CEP's newly formed CFU was struggling to develop, and O'Reilly saw a chance to tackle the economic end of freelancing that had been flagging and deteriorating for some time.

"Our short-term plan," O'Reilly explains, "is to bring immediate value to membership. Right now you get immediate legal support on contracts, and if your [journalist] credentials check out, national and international press passes." That's all for $125 annually. "You also gain access to inexpensive and valuable benefits plans."

The CFU grants its members access to Unifor's packaged dental, vision, medication and travel insurance plans, which range from $70-$120 per month. The packages cover about 90 per cent of medication costs, $1,000 per annum on uninsured medical expenses such as psychologists or visits to the dentist and up to one million in liability on travel. There are group packages to cover family members as well.

Contract support is increasingly the most popular service: both analysis of contracts and handling legal disputes. "Increasingly, its around non-payment. The publisher or 'engager' takes the work, then simply refuses to pay, at which point the CFU goes in and fights the legal battle."

"Our long term objective is building collective strength to improve our conditions. Currently we've had success on a local level; we organize the freelancers that work for a particular publication then negotiate improvements to the contracts," says O'Reilly. "That's how we take on fights, generating critical mass around specific engagements. We've done the same before with nation-wide media institutions."

"Sometimes the paper will look for other freelancers, sometimes not; it depends on the existing relationships and their ethics. That's where the long-term comes in," explains O'Reilly, "to get a large enough membership that they can't turn to someone else. To set floors -- not ceilings -- on rights and pay."

"We're not an ordinary union," O'Reilly continues, "we're not telling our members how to run their business or define their craft. If they can get higher pay, all the power to them. The qualification for membership is paying your dues."

O'Reilly explains that Unifor sees the CFU as a potential model for organizing non-unionized workers and the unemployed because freelancers typically don't have a "worker" or union mentality, are difficult to track down or maintain contact with, are highly exploited and are initially reluctant to organize. "Though whenever we find each other," he says, "the result is almost always a new member."

O'Reilly describes the relationship between Unifor and the CFU as "largely independent," referring to the larger organization as an umbrella for the unions under it. The chances are low that your town's Local will have even heard of the CFU.

"We're an online organization, which parallels are membership. We're a kind of 'national local,' though right now we're looking to set up national committees with our members."

And voting?

"There's the collective national organization that is Unifor, with elected regional representation, and Unifors presidents, including myself, who are also elected by membership. CFU's annual meeting of members happens via webcast, our next one is this November where I'll get my marching orders."

The AGM of the CFU is on Sunday, Nov. 24Th at 1 p.m. EST. Please visit canadianfreelanceunion.ca for more information.

Daniel Adaszynsk is a young West Coast freelancer, working with both written word and graphic design. The start of his work can be found here and here.

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