Required reading: A look at freelance writers and collective organizing in Canada

Nicole S. Cohen, a PhD candidate in York University’s Communication and Culture graduate program, is working on a large project on historical and contemporary efforts to organize freelance writers. As part of that project, she’s written a paper entitled “Negotiating Writers’ Rights: Freelance Cultural Labour and the Challenge of Organizing,” recently published in Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society Volume 17 & 18 and residing here online.

It’s an insightful primer on the movement towards (and the need for) organizing freelance writers in Canada. Cohen outlines the barriersboth external forces and those inside the culture and business of freelance writingthat stand in the way of organizing freelancers to protect their interests. She then describes three organizations representing different models of collective organizing for Canadian freelance writers.

The paper’s abstract:

As media companies grow in profits and economic significance, workers in these industries are experiencing precarious forms of employment and declining union power. This article provides insight into the experiences of a growing segment of the media labour force in Canada: freelance writers, who face declining rates of pay, intensified struggles over copyright, and decreasing control over their work. At the same time, freelancers are currently experimenting with various approaches to collective organizing: a professional association, a union, and an agency-union partnership. As part of a larger project on freelance writers’ working conditions and approaches to organizing, this article provides an overview of three organizational models and raises some early questions about their implications.

The third organizational model that Cohen dissects, after profession associations (focusing on the Professional Writers Association of Canada) and unions (the Canadian Freelance Union), is the agency-union partnership between the Canadian Writers Group and the Canadian Media Guild (Cohen interviewed representatives from both organizations while conducting research for her article). As Story Board is a joint project of CWG and CMG, we asked them for reaction and feedback about the paper. First and foremost, all were in agreement that Cohen is doing essential work and there is a lot more to be done to organize freelancers and advocate on their behalf.

There is one point that needs clarifying, says the CWG’s founder, Derek Finkle. Cohen suggests that there is a “turf war” of sorts between CFU and CMG/CWG, writing that “the two unions are not currently working together and are now competing for members” and “when writers’ organizations compete against one another, it is not freelance writers who will win.”

Finkle says that when he began putting word out about the creation of CWG in 2008, the CFU had been talked about for a good number of years but had not yet been realized, and at the time he was not aware of the organization actively negotiating fees or contracts or seeking potential clients on behalf of any writers. Today there are two unions acting in this field, but they are not not necessarily competing. In discussions CWG and CMG have had with major magazine and newspaper publishers over the past two-and-a-half years, there has never been any evidence of crossover in terms of the CFU being engaged in similar efforts, says Finkle, and when the CFU acted in an advisory capacity recently with some freelance writers at the Halifax Chronicle-Herald, CMG was not involved.

The formation of the CWG/CMG alliance was never intended to start or participate in a turf war, and all involved believe that it’s essential for all organizations that represent freelancers to work in the same direction, says CMG President Lise Lareau. She expressed this publicly at the alliance’s public launch party, in response to a question from a PWAC representative. Finkle agrees that both CMG and CWG have made it known they’re open to working with the CFU when it serves the mutual purposes of both organizations to do so, and he says all the models Cohen addresses will continue to undergo change. “My sense is that collective action on the part of freelancers is something that will continue to happen gradually over the coming years, and that the three groups Nicole discusses in her paper will continue to evolve and adapt—or not. It will sort itself out in time.”

Cohen notes in her introduction that, as they are “legally classified as self-employed workers or independent contractors (despite the fact that many freelancers are in fact economically dependent on one organization), freelance writers are ‘outside the ambit of labour protection and collective bargaining,’ assumed to be entrepreneurs who do not require legal protection.” A footnote recognizes one exception: freelancers for the CBC, who are members of and whose contracts are negotiated by the Canadian Media Guild. Don Genova, president of the CMG’s Freelance Branch, wants freelancers to know that they can be included as part of bargaining units at major employers like the CBC and says, “Someday we hope to extend that more employers.” CMG has been representing anyone who freelances at the CBC since 1982, overseeing thousands of contracts per year, most of which involve some sort of writing, including writers who provide freelance content on, Genova notes. “Our contract language and minimum rates are negotiated along with all other employees at the CBC and we are in active discussions with a committee of CBC managers on improving the current language in the contract to reflect today’s broadcast/publishing/digital realities and solve any day-to-day problems our members have in the administration of their contracts.”

Read Cohen’s paper in full [PDF]. It’s a thoroughly researched and well-argued piece of writing, and however long it takes you to read its 20 pages, at the end you will likely agree it was time well spent.

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