As I’m sure most of you are all too aware, slogging through the wage system is no easy ride, no matter how you sell your labor. If, however, you sell your labor as a freelance journalist, there is a new organization that hopes to make the task a little easier: The IWW Freelance Journalists Union.
I recently sat down with two members of the FJU, Zoe Sullivan and an organizer who wishes to remain anonymous. The following is our talk.
SW: Can you explain the current media landscape and its impact on the people that work in the industry?
ZS: Secure, well-paying jobs in journalism have been increasingly hard to find. More than 3,000 journalists have lost their jobs since the beginning of this year alone. There are now a relative handful of mostly online news outlets, and tens of thousands of journalists are trying to get jobs with them. Most of those journalists end up working as freelancers with no benefits, no security, no healthcare, or anything else.
ANON: Freelancers have always been a fixture in media, but their working conditions are getting worse. Traditional workplaces are being taken apart. Publications are firing all their staff and replacing them with freelancers, and freelancers are being forced to work for really low pay as publishers cut their per-article rates.
In many ways, the media industry has already arrived at the place the rest of the economy is heading, with media staff employees being turned into gig workers. The media was being “gig-ified” before we even had the word “gig-ified” to describe it.
ZS: I was recently offered$250 for a 1,000 word article, which, with research, drafting, proofing, and the rest, would take roughly 2 to 3 days to write. That works out to less than $15 an hour.
(Editor’s note: Seattle’s minimum wage is $16 an hour for large employers, $15 for everyone else.)
ANON: And that’s a pretty standard rate. Readers would be surprised how much work goes into an article. And that’s what some of the biggest publishers in the world are paying, not just the fly-by-night news outlets.
SW: What needs weren’t being met by current organizations? How did the FJU come about?
ANON: There are journalists’ unions, but they are dedicated to staffers. There are also journalists’ organizations that freelancers can join, like the News Guild and Study Hall, but they’re more for networking and things other than rank-and-file organizing. They don’t carry out any militant direct action.
ZS: There are also groups that use policy pressure, like political lobbying, but they don’t actively organize.
ANON: Last year some of us got together and decided it would be worth forming an organization that could meet the needs of freelancers. We started work on it in September of 2018. Last March, we went public and received hundreds of requests for information in the first 24 hours alone.
SW: What is the current state of the FJU? Is it open to all kinds of freelance workers or just writers?
ANON: We are currently organizing with hundreds of people around the world. About 120 are paying IWW union dues through the FJU. We have a few more that pay dues to the IWW, but do so through their local GMB or directly to headquarters.
We use the dues we receive to help pay for the costs associated with organizing. IWW dues are pretty reasonable, but we realize some freelancers struggle to make ends meet. If someone wants to organize with us, but really can’t afford the dues, we won’t turn them away.
ZS: We have a pretty broad definition on what occupations fall under the rubric of journalism. We are open to editors, photographers, or anyone else that works in journalism.
ANON: We’ve even had some documentary filmmakers reach out to us.
SW: Why organize the IWW and not a traditional union?
ANON: I was already a member of the IWW, so for me it was a natural connection.
The NLRB barely recognizes freelancers as workers. It would, for instance, be extremely difficult to define a bargaining unit for freelancers since there are so many of us dispersed around the country and writing for so many different publications. On the other hand, IWW tools and tactics are capable of providing the protection freelancers need.
SW: You recently scored your first victory. Can you explain?
ANON: We recently had a campaign against Vox Media. Vox tried to put a nondisclosure clause in their freelancer contracts that would have made it a violation for freelancers to discuss their pay rates. Not being able to discuss rates would have made it difficult for any writer to know if they were getting a fair rate.
We received complaints about this from some of our members and other freelancers, so we invited any writer that had written for Vox to send in information about the rate Vox had paid them. We then published it all anonymously on Twitter. It essentially defanged the nondisclosure provision.
Soon after, Vox did a complete 180. Not only did they remove the clause, they said they encouraged everyone to discuss compensation.
SW: What are your plans going forward? Do you have any more actions planned?
ZS: We are currently doing prep work for our first official campaign.
ANON: The Vox campaign was kind of ad hoc.
We are currently reaching out to contributors of a certain publication that hasn’t been very good about paying their freelancers.
Longer term, we are putting together a database of publisher information that should be of use to freelancers. We are also looking to develop our own press passes, which we can issue through the FJU. Having a press pass offers some protection from the police or other antagonistic forces that might want to prevent us from doing our job.
ZS: Not having a press pass can be a problem for freelancers. I have been excluded from events because I didn’t have one. I have worked for many publications, so stateside I have generally been able to get a press pass if I need one, but it can be difficult overseas. There are other organizations that issue them, but many of those organizations are expensive to join.
SW: How might interested freelancers find out more about the FJU?