Organizing precarious workers: Unions think sector-wide to help freelancers

| May 30, 2014
Photo: flickr/Timothy Vollmer

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At a downtown Toronto hotel in late April, a mixed group of about 50 students and 20-something's are mixing with each other in a small conference room, trading Twitter handles and media industry war stories.

They are here to hear data journalist William Wolfe-Wylie, Torontoist writer Desmond Cole and freelance animator Sagan Yee discuss the intersection of the digital world and storytelling -- though the free drink tickets probably helped too.

At first glance, you might not guess that this is a way to get people talking about unions. But the hosts of the event, the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), are hoping that by bringing media workers together to network and learn, they can also get them thinking about working conditions in their industry.

This technique is just one of the ways that a group of Canadian unions and organizations are making the effort to organize precarious workers; focusing on particular job sectors instead of individual workplaces.

A few months prior to the digital media mixer, CMG organizers Karen Wirsig, Datejie Green and Katherine Lapointe explain their multi-pronged approach to engaging freelance media workers in a conference room at their downtown Toronto office.

"The union is playing more of a central facilitation role," said Green. At the mixers, she hopes that people will talk, not only about working conditions, but also connect with other professionals and swap skillsets.

Along with the digital media mixers, CMG also runs workshops on contract negotiations and preparing taxes for freelancers, a blog dedicated to freelance issues called The Story Board and, as a local of Communication Workers of America, offer an associated member program which gives free memberships to student and entry-level journalists. 

All of these methods are ways that the union can engage with potential new members for their freelance unit, CMG Freelance.

"What we miss out on when we always focus on that 'one way of doing it' is that we, as a labour movement, haven't provided enough opportunities to bring workers together whether they belong to a union or not," said Wirsig.

Traditionally, when a union organizes, they are dealing with what is known as a "closed shop" -- a workplace where there is a stable, secure workforce. But the nature of precarious work means that organizers are unlikely to encounter this, at least at first contact.

Media workers freelance, sometimes with multiple skill sets. Janitors, personal support workers and other temporary workers cycle through sub-contractors, switching workplaces week-to-week, if not day-to-day. And while retail and food services workers may stay in the same workplace for many years, the abundance of, for example, Wal Mart stores, means that management can simply shut down a store if the threat of unionization rises.

Some unions and workers' groups have begun to look more broadly at their organizing tactics.

"I certainly think that the labour movement could be exploring and taking seriously those kinds of geographic organizing strategies," said Stephanie Ross, an associate professor at York University. "To say, 'ok we're going to have a target of organizing simultaneously all the Starbucks in downtown Toronto.' It's incredibly unlikely that if you are able to do that Starbucks will pull out of downtown Toronto all together."

Sectoral or geographic organizing strategies allow union staff and organizers to engage with more workers while also addressing the problems that come with organizing a precarious workplace.

In the United States and Canada, this has taken the form of nation wide campaigns calling for higher wages for fast food and retail workers. In the United States, fast food workers in 150 different cities walked off the job May 15 to protest for a $15 minimum wage and the right to join a union. It was just the latest in a mass collective action that rivals even the biggest Labour Day parade numbers. That strength in numbers makes it harder, though not impossible, for employers to target employees who speak out.

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) is one of the unions to have made engaging service workers a top priority. Under their Justice for Janitors program, SEIU has successfully organized over 30 cities in the United States and Canada, including Montreal, Vancouver and Toronto.

"The Justice for Janitors model is based on the idea that in order to have success in raising standards we have to organize workers on a city-wide basis," said Tom Galivan, the Secretary-Treasurer of SEIU local 2 in Ottawa. "We've got to get all of the workers right across the city in the organization and united in order to make a stand to drive up employment standards."

Their model focuses on getting all of the janitorial sub-contractors in a city to agree to standard base rates, in the hope of stopping one company from undercutting the others. Their current battle is in Ottawa, where the sheer number of government buildings means that janitorial sub-contracting is rampant.

Another SEIU campaign in Halifax, Baristas Rise Up, has seen the successful organization of two coffee shops in the city. Organizers there realized part of the battle is changing the perception that their jobs are just part-time holdovers until they enter the real world. "More and more people aren't transitional [workers], as the media and the public would have you to believe," said organizer Charlie Huntley. "People are sticking it out in the workplace. They are looking for job security."

While that style of organizing can be quite effective for some precarious workers, for others, it doesn't address the problem of what to do when an employee has multiple bosses.

Karl Beveridge and Carole Condé understand this problem intimately. As fine artists, they've done whatever work they have to do over years to get by. "You are at the whim and mercy at the market," said Beveridge. It was part of what inspired the pair to turn their lenses on other precarious workers for a recent show at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario.

Beveridge is also the co-chair of the negotiating committee for CARFAC, which represents visual and media artists in Canada. While they can't organize a particular workplace, they can put pressure on major workplaces to uphold certain standards to ensure no one is getting shortchanged.

That's why CARFAC is currently engaged in a legal battle with the National Gallery in Ottawa. Gallery management is resisting the unions demands that a binding minimum fee will be paid to all artists showing at the gallery, regardless of stature. The Supreme Court of Canada heard the case on May 14, allowing CARFAC to appeal an earlier decision on the issue.

Beveridge hopes that if they can enforce a minimum artist fee at the Gallery, it will also raise rates at other arts facilities. "It's a right to work thing," he said. "Do you have the right to undercut another artist or be paid less?"

Their model is not dissimilar from the one used by Alliance of Canadian Cinema, Television and Radio Artists (ACTRA), which successfully negotiated standard rates that productions have to pay their workers.

CMG is now looking to these models as they try to organize freelance workers. They also have an unusual model of their own to look at -- the CMG collective agreement with CBC. Under its terms, a freelancer who works for CBC is covered by numerous provisions in the collective agreement – for instance, minimum rates. 

CMG would love to be able to reproduce this agreement in other workplaces. However, they think that given the current political climate, the likelihood of that happening today is slim.

Right now, they're focusing on building a workers organization that is unusual in its own right -- a union you join voluntarily for the positive benefits. "One of the things I've been promoting in the freelance campaign is how do we see things in a proactive, positive, community unionism, shared economy kind of way," said Green. "Because we don't actually have a common employer or engager. We don't even have a common craft anymore."

They've identified the one thing that does bind precarious workers -- loneliness. Often, precarious work isolates people, either because they have to work alone or because management effectively separates workers from one another. But with every mixer and event the CMG does, it brings workers a little closer together. That's how they're building solidarity.

"I think increasingly we have more in common and together then we sometimes imagine," said Wirsig. "If we raise the water - all the boats, we float higher."


Check out part one and part two of H.G. Watson's four-part special feature on precarious work.

H.G. Watson is a CWA associate member. She has also done paid freelance work for CMG's blog, The Story Board.

Photo: flickr/Timothy Vollmer



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