To be or not to be (in a union), that is the question

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer will share personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

“I wouldn’t belong to any club that would have me as a member” — attributed to Groucho Marx

I usually feel the same way. I’m not really much of a joiner. Perhaps that’s why I’m “The Born Freelancer.” I suspect it’s something buried deep within my DNA. For that very reason, I originally suggested calling myself “The Congenital Freelancer,” but fortunately wiser heads prevailed!

So why am I a freelance member in good standing of the CMG? Why should any self-respecting freelancer even consider joining it or any other allied union?

Initially, with the CMG, I’m not sure I had that much of a choice. As a freelancer at the CBC I automatically had a union fee deducted from my paycheques. Since I benefited from the minimums negotiated by the freelance CMG bargaining unit at the CBC, I figured, OK, let them have their percentage. Otherwise I generally ignored the CMG for some time because I believed that they really only represented contract employees. Then one day I faced some changes in a new contract. Who could I turn to for advice?

Oh, yeah, wasn’t I already paying money to that union? Maybe they could help. Reluctantly I called them. And they did help, reviewing my contract and even giving me some extra good advice on what I should try asking for in addition. Hey, it never hurts to ask!

Afterwards I thought, well, OK, the CMG has definitely been helpful. Since I’m paying them the equivalent of actual dues anyway I really should decide — am I in or out? Fish or cut bait. I hate half measures. So I opted in and applied for full freelance membership.

But what does it actually mean for freelancers like us? I decided to ask Don Genova, the CMG’s freelance branch president. With his permission I’d like to share some of his thoughts.

First, about the benefits of being a freelance CMG member while working at the CBC…

Having representation at the CBC guarantees minimum rates, kill fees, rights to negotiate sale of copyright and in some cases replay. It also guarantees that the full weight of the union, including staff and legal representation, is behind you if you get involved in some sort of dispute. It provides advice and can even negotiate contracts for you if you desire, at no charge. And you only pay 1.55% in dues of what you make at the CBC.

Well, ask anyone, dealing with a bureaucracy the size of the Mothercorp these days is a nightmare. There is no question in my mind that freelancers need all the assistance we can get! And freelance work at the CBC has a long-standing tradition that predates CMG union involvement. In some areas the CMG still has a long way to go to catch up to those historical precedents. But does CMG membership convey similar advantages for freelancers working elsewhere?

You can expect advice of a general nature and consultation on contracts, but not legal representation on an individual basis. We need to be able to change that by negotiating collective agreements for freelancers at other media outlets.  We know that will be a difficult road…

OK, so there’s still a lot of hard ground work to do for CMG to advance its cause outside of freelancing at the CBC. More members are obviously required as a first step forward. But there’s immediate advice available to you of a general nature which is still better than none at all. Back to Don…

As we grow in numbers we hope to be able to offer more face to face connections in the way of seminars, forums, and maybe just some
good-old-fashioned gripe sessions… one thing we do know is that it’s very difficult for one freelancer to stand alone against an employer. It’s too easy for them just to say ‘no’ or ‘get lost’.  With a large media union like the CMG making some noise for you, there is an actual chance that working conditions and pay rates can change for the better.  With more and more media outlets relying on freelancers to create “content,” that collective voice can only be an advantage, not a disadvantage.

Bottom line: as much as we freelancers take pride in our independence and self-employed status, these days it’s still us little guys and gals up against increasingly monolithic corporate borgs. How else can the vast majority of us stand up for ourselves except with the assistance of some kind of collective representation when and where possible?

Of course, the CMG may not be the right union for you depending upon the nature of your freelance work. A great deal of writing produced for broadcast today in Canada, for example, is covered not by the CMG but by the Writers Guild of Canada (WGC), which grew out of the old ACTRA alliance of guilds. The WGC conveys certain benefits to its membership that the CMG does not and vice versa. For many working freelancers today the reality is taking out multiple union memberships as each often has its own clearly delineated, mutually exclusive areas of jurisdiction. You’ll have to do some research to find which one represents your chosen professional territory. It’s a potentially confusing and frustrating situation but also part of the cost of freelancing that some of us have chosen to pay. Let’s face it: freelancers are generally anything but natural union types — in fact Don likens organizing freelancers to “herding cats” — but even most feral cats are smart enough to know when to come in from the cold.

Clearly the CMG still has a very long way to go in fully representing freelancers, especially those working outside of the CBC. Its alliance with the Writers’ Coalition and its collaboration with the Canadian Writers Group in creating Story Board as a resource for freelancers are positive developments. But if something isn’t entirely to your liking, IMHO, the first step is to join and then work on making it better. Of course, just joining adds right away to the bargaining power of any union. And according to Don there’s also one more important advantage to membership in any freelancers’ union…

Freelancing can be very lonely. Often you’re sitting at home waiting for the phone to ring or making cold calls to potential sources… knowing that there is a community out there to share stuff with is important, even if it is a virtual connection at times.

In some ways I think Don’s final argument has the most profound impact on me. He’s neatly summarized some of the feelings that have made me repeatedly ignore even the heartfelt advice of my hero, Groucho. We’re all social creatures after all — even hardcore freelancers. And, yes, it does seem to me that a virtual connection is still better than no connection. The fact that you and I are connecting on this site right now only confirms it.

Thanks to Don Genova for all his good thoughts. And a long overdue shout out to Keith Maskell (, who’s a good person at the CMG for freelancers to turn to for advice on contracts.

Now over to you. If you are a freelance CMG member, what specific improvements would you like to see? Where has it failed you or helped? If you’re not a member — why not? What would it take for you to join? Or is any kind of a union anathema to you?

Posted on May 26, 2011 at 1:57 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , , ,

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