An Interview with the Freelance Journalists Union about what it takes to organize the working class in the 21st Century.
This article was originally featured in the Spring 2019 issue. Subscribe!
Freelance journalists all over the world face the same injustices that all other workers face, yet the nature of their work provides some unique challenges to labor organization. Recently a number of American journalists formed the Freelance Journalists Union to try and combat injustices in the industry including delinquent payments for services rendered and a lack of healthcare provided.
Industrial Worker reached out to the FJU and was put in contact with Justin Glawe, a freelance journalist working in Dallas, Texas. An industry veteran, Justin has seen firsthand the mistreatment freelance journalists are made to suffer. In my interview, he and an anonymous organizer shared these issues, explaining to me just how freelance journalists are taken advantage of by publications large and small and the steps the FJU is taking to ensure fair and equal labor rights for freelancers everywhere.
J. A. Hanrahan: I’ve already touched on this in the email I sent you, but just to rehash could give me a quick rundown of why the FJU was formed and what it’s purpose and goal is?
Justin Glawe: Yeah, sure. I mean it’s pretty simple really. It was formed because there’s not really any sort of entity like this right now for independent media workers and freelance journalists. This sort of thing just does not exist in any fashion at all useful to people who fit into those two categories. Especially at a time where it seems like every month there’s more bad news about publications large and small, national and local going through layoffs and firings. Those people are a lot of the times reentering the industry as freelancers.
Both of these reasons–the first one being that there isn’t any organized representation for freelancers and then also the fact that, personally, I think we’re increasing in numbers and if not increasing in numbers then definitely increasing in our collective power over the industry and how much content we’re providing for publications. I think this gives us some bargaining power and makes this whole organizing thing an important job to do.
JH: Yeah, yeah, of course. And you guys are still kind of in a beginning phase, right. There haven’t been any major disputes yet?
JG: We’re at the point right now where we’re still just fielding calls from the initial callout we did in late March. We’re still finding time to talk to folks who got back to us when we announced ourselves to the world. The result was so great that we’re still dealing with that influx. Initially we had the organizing committee which was a group of, I don’t know, about seven or eight folks kicking around ideas for the past year. We’re still organizing but it’s a broader coalition of people now because of all the people who reached out to us.
JH: Is that more of a US-centered thing or are you reaching out to people from all over the world?
JG: Well, it’s actually them reaching out to us. It is mainly US but off the top of my head I know there have been folks in the UK that have gotten back to us, and there’s an American based in Paris that has gotten back to us. The organizer can probably tell you a little more about that, but there is an international contingent.
Anonymous Organizer: When we started back in September we were really focusing our efforts on US publications since that’s who we predominantly write for but the goal is not to focus on freelancers just in the United States but with other Anglophone countries and places where international coverage is related to US media.
From the beginning this was definitely international. When we started the callout in March, we received interest from freelancers who are in no way connected to US media but still interested in organizing and we obviously didn’t want to turn these people away since they’re facing the same problems were facing, just in an international or regional context. We’ve been trying to help them the best we can and trying to start organizing campaigns in their communities. In El Salvador and in Lebanon we’ve been in touch with folks who are interested in organizing parallel efforts and we’re trying to give them the information and resources from the IWW to basically replicate what we’ve done here in their own national or regional context.
JH: For readers who may not understand the struggles a freelancer faces could you go over a few things that publications and big companies are shafting freelancers on?
JG: The way that I describe it to people oftentimes is that this is the only industry in which an independent contractor, because that’s what we are, goes and has to sell a publication on the product we’re trying to provide for them, get that approved, and then provide the labor which creates the product without being compensated for it in a normal style. When a plumber says this is what the job is going to cost, they have an hourly rate, and you pay them when they bill you. That’s not the way that it works for freelancers. This is just a small part of what we have to deal with, but it’s sort of the logistical and financial aspect of it.
I have two stories that I’ve been working on, one for four months and one for six months. We’re talking about hundreds of hours of labor; all sorts of time and resources are spent on these things. I probably won’t get paid for them for another four to six months down the road and the pay I will get will be not at all representative of the time I put into it.
We’re dealing with late and delinquent payments and a backwards payment structure. We’re dealing with not being properly compensated for our time. A lot of people are dealing with not being compensated at all which hopefully is a rare occurrence.
In addition to that, freelancers are the bottom of the barrel for a lot of publications so we’re the last people to get paid, [and] we’re the last people to get any sort of consideration for decent working conditions. We feel that this is completely unfair, and it’s also not representative to [sic] the labor that freelancers are providing and the amount of content that we’re providing to these publications. These publications would not exist without freelancers, and increasingly there’s more and more of us that are contributing to these publications and there’s fewer full-time staffers because that’s the way it’s going with all sorts of industries.
Everybody is going towards this independent contractor/gig economy model, whatever you want to call it, and it’s no different in publishing, whether it’s a national publication or a local one. They’re all starting to use this part-time labor. We feel like at this point in time we’re at a great place to throw our weight around and say, “Hey, you have to start treating us better, because without us you don’t exist.”
JH: You had mentioned that freelancers are independent contractors; the last time I was on the phone with the FJU I was informed that independent contractors in the US are treated differently under the labor laws than somebody with a full-time job. Could you touch on how being considered an independent contractor can be detrimental in certain ways?
JG: Well, for one thing you have to provide your own healthcare, which is increasingly becoming very problematic because of the efforts to cut Obamacare.
Otherwise it’s just like anything else. I used to work at a factory in Peoria, Illinois, where I’m from. It was a Caterpillar factory, the massive global tractor company, and it was all union. Everybody working at the factory, from the cafeteria worker to the guy putting the engine together, was in the union. Over time the unions became less powerful, they got screwed over in negotiations, and more and more guys started getting outsourced. That’s how I got my job there, I was getting paid ten bucks an hour to drive a forklift and pick up parts and take them to the line. A job that used to be, ten years before I got it, a twenty-dollar-per-hour union job with benefits.
Publications and writers have been trying to organize themselves; we’ve seen that movement over the past couple of years. Vice in New York, the LA Times, there was an effort at Buzzfeed to unionize, at least at the national level folks have been trying to do that. What they’re trying to do is to protect themselves against the guys like me coming in for ten dollars an hour that took that forklift job down in Peoria. We’re trying to do that, too. Full-time staffers have a level of protection and benefits and job security and, frankly, just a regular paycheck that freelancers don’t have. We’re just trying to get like a modicum of that. With independent contractors there’s no guarantee that we get a paycheck every week. We have to kill and eat what we find in the wild, you know what I’m saying?
AO: In terms of a more legal perspective, labor law in the United States is notoriously bad across the board, but its particularly bad for independent contractors because we’re not seen by the government as being employees, we’re seen as our own independent businesses.
What that means is that a lot of labor laws don’t apply to us, there are some significant legal hurdles in that process because we’re independent contractors. That’s not to say it’s not possible; there are significant unions in film and television that are made up of independent contractors. They’ve been through this process and are quite powerful at this point in American history, especially compared to other unions.
That is something that we aspire to do, it’s what we can set our sights on in the long term, but for right now we see the IWW organizing model, which relies on solidarity and collective action, as immediately available to us. We think that this provides a much better model for organizing rather than the traditional route.
JG: Right, and let me jump in there real quick, because I think that’s an interesting point. If you’re an independent contractor then you should be able to go to the bargaining table, like what was mentioned with the film unions, and say, “Look guys, you’re treating me as an independent contractor, as a freelancer, you’re 1099ing me, I’m not making that much money, you’ve got people on staff, but the labor I’m doing is essential.”
Not just in media, but across the entire economy it is happening more and more where people are just ignoring that law and ignoring the fact that we are providing essential labor for the financial well-being of these publications and these companies, but we’re not being treated as if we’re essential. We’re treated like, “Oh, here’s your little fee, sorry it took us six months to get it to you, and we’re not going to pay you as much as we pay the staffers, and don’t worry about healthcare or anything like that.” So I think that that’s an important distinction to make, too.
AO: Yeah, the phenomenon that Justin is describing is sometimes called “misclassification” and it’s the idea that freelancers are treated more like “permalancers,” meaning they’re fulfilling the role of a full-time employee but receiving none of the protections or the benefits. That’s something that’s also comes up repeatedly and affects a lot of the freelancers that we’re trying to address.
JH: Of course. So a union at say, a department store, can enforce their demands by calling a strike. The very nature of freelance work means that you’re spread out and operating primarily in a digital space. What are going to be some of the strategies that you employ to organize labor and enforce your demands?
JG: Well, I think it’s less in terms of, “Hey, we’re going to strike one day and none of us are going to answer our emails.” I don’t necessarily think that that is an effective way to do it.
I keep going back to the numbers, the increasing numbers of how many [freelancers] there are. I think of it more in terms of “applying pressure,” right? Applying pressure in individual instances and as a collective to publications and saying, “Look, here’s what we’re asking for, here’s what we want you guys to do. We want to be treated in a more fair manner, the way the staffers are treated.” Especially for those folks the Organizer described as ’permalancers.’ I think that is where we have an ability to achieve better working conditions for people that is separate from the traditional way of everybody calling off work and standing outside on a picket line method of striking. So I think that is something we’re looking at.
AO: Yeah, so as a non-traditional labor force, and as one that’s so decentralized and atomized, there are challenges to traditional labor organizing that we have to address in unique ways. I think one way that we’ve already been doing it is asking ourselves how we do outreach. How do we reach out to the folks that are our friends and coworkers, because there’s no office, no factory, no store where we all congregate so we have to use our common workspace, which is the internet?
We’ve been using our tools there to reach each other and to talk to each other through social networking, through social media, using video conferences and calls and stuff like that to build the connections and form the solidarity that is at the heart of every union. We’ll almost certainly have to use similar tactics when it comes to fighting for our demands, so whether that’s public shaming, or memes, or a hashtag, those are definitely avenues that we’ll have to use, because our workplace is the internet. When we have a labor dispute we bring it online.
That being said, there are also traditional labor tactics that might be open to us and might be very effective. A picket at the headquarters of a publication is very effective and quite a powerful thing regardless of whether freelancers are doing [it] or if staffers are doing it. I think it would also take a lot of publications by surprise that we were able to organize something in real life because they really don’t see us as a class of worker like they see their staffers; if we can act like a class that would demonstrate some of the power that we have.
Beyond that, I think we could employ a tactic like a strike, just that it would be more of a boycott for us. That’s not really a weakness; it can be a strength because if you work in a traditional environment and you go on strike there’s really no other way you can make money unless you very quickly find a part-time job. On our side we can have almost an indefinite boycott because what we can do is try to hold the line and tell our members and the general public not to write for a publication.
For our members that feel like they don’t have the privilege to withhold their labor for financial reasons we can hook them up with other publishing opportunities or something more traditional like a strike fund to tide them over.
We think that in some way our flexibility is our advantage and not our weakness. We can have labor actions that are much more diverse than what traditional unions would be able to pull off.
JG: The very nature of the fact that we are organizing and we are talking to one another and we have a name; this is organizing action in and of itself. I think it’s a powerful thing and it’s already netting some progress.
JH: So a little earlier we were talking about other independent contractors who have successfully organized and the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think about that would be the Writers Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild who do have a lot of sway in what goes in their respective industries. The [Writers Guild of America] have a Minimum Basic Agreement, and if production studios don’t meet that it’s almost impossible to find people to produce content for them. Does the FJU have any plans for doing something like that?
AO: We definitely take a lot of inspiration from them, because I think that they illustrate that independent contractors can organize and I think they’re one of the strongest unions in the country right now because they can literally shut down an industry if management doesn’t play ball with them.
We definitely want to work up to a point to be that powerful, but I think it’s always worth understanding these efforts and their historical context. Both of the unions in television and film really got their go at the beginning of the 20th century when labor in this country was at a much more powerful level than it is right now. They were able to assign a bargaining unit and win elections and were able to challenge the management on a better footing than what we’re at right now.
That’s not to say that these things aren’t important, and they are the challenges we wish to address in the future, but we think that we don’t necessarily have that degree of power right now, that solid base of support that would be needed to win something like that. If we were to take this in front of, for example, the National Labor Relations Board right now, we risk not only losing the fight ourselves but we could hamper all sorts of labor organizing for decades to come because we overestimated our strength.
JH: Sure, of course, and kind of on the topic of political issues in the journalism realm, it’s becoming increasingly apparent in America that news sources are taking increasing political stances. Some news sources are clearly on one side of the political spectrum. Do you think this is going to affect which publications are willing to listen to you?
JG: It could, it could, but look–there’s right-wingers that freelance too. But if you’re someone who writes for the Daily Caller or the Washington Free Beacon or something like that and you put months and months into a story and they don’t pay you or they pay you less than what they said they’d pay you I can almost guarantee that your political beliefs aren’t going to affect the fact that you’re not happy you’re not being paid for your labor.
So yes, people will have an opinion but I think the struggle isn’t going to be that the people on the right will look at it and be like, “Oh another union thing, these people are whining,” I think the biggest struggle is the attitude towards the press in general. I think something we’ll have to overcome is this hurdle that’s been put in place in the last several years that the press is the enemy, that we’re un-American, that we’re out to get Trump. In my mind that’s where the struggle lies.
AO: I think it’s worth pointing out that the IWW itself is not politically aligned. We have members across the political spectrum, but as per our constitution we’re prohibited from making any alliances with political parties. In that sense we can never become co-opted by the Democrats or Republicans or anything like that. Members are free to do anything they want. Justin put it well, even if you write for a right-wing outlet, if they don’t pay you your ideology doesn’t make a difference, you need that money. Even right-wingers think their bosses suck. That’s why we think unionizing is important, not from an ideological perspective, but purely from the perspective of a working-class person.
JG: I want those people involved, too. I want people who write about different political beliefs and have different political backgrounds. I want those people involved with the union and I want it to be made clear that this is not a partisan thing and yes, a lot of us tend to be more liberal, because a lot of people who work in media tend to be. But look, if you are a writer and a freelance journalist and you are getting worked over by a publication, we support your struggle, we support your cause. We welcome you and you should come in and join us. We can work together; it doesn’t matter if you have completely opposite political beliefs, this is about making better working conditions for our labor. It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from. We want this to be a new thing across the industry, to help out all kinds of folks.
AO: Also I think that sort of lends itself to a more realistic and more valuable form of politics that’s not about being Republican or Democrat: It’s about workers working together to get what we need. In a lot of ways that cuts through this sort of littoral political divide.
JH: You mentioned that you’re still in your early stages, but do you guys have an idea of the first action that you’re going to take as a union?
JG: One of the first things we’re going to have to do is put up a list of concerns, airing our grievances as it were. We’ll do that on our website, I think. After we gauge the response to that, we can figure out what step two is.
It’s important to stress here that the reason there’s not a hard and fast step one, two, and three is because we are by definition a collective. There’s no appointed leader, there’s no hierarchal leadership structure. We are making decisions based off of the input of our members. Things take a little bit of time because there’s not just one person calling the shots. It’s important that people understand we are truly a collective organization and there isn’t a top-down leadership structure that other unions and other organizing efforts have had in the past.
AO: Absolutely, I think that Justin is 100% right that there is no “master plan.” We are truly a democratic effort and what that means is that even if you want to join you don’t need to adhere to a plan we’ve come up with already.
We’re focusing on outreach; we’re focused on building a democratic structure so people can have their interests addressed in our organizing. This can take a lot of different forms moving forward: a list of grievances, having a Bill of Rights.
When it comes more-so to applying direct action as you were asking about, we’re taking our first steps towards that [by] having a survey which will give our members an opportunity to let us know what problems we’re having with specific publications. We want to find out which publications owe them money, which editors have ghosted them; very concrete issues that we can then look at collectively and say, “This is where we’ve having problems, this is where we need leverage. How can we use this information to determine our next steps?”
From there maybe it’s a list of demands, or maybe it’s something more specific like, “OK, there’s a significant number of us who are owed money from this particular publication, maybe we should go after that first.”
Whatever comes of this will be a collective decision-making process, so it’s really difficult to say, “This is what we’re doing next,” because that would entail having a concrete plan that we’re forcing upon everyone rather than having an organic plan that bubbles up from the bottom.
JG: For sure, though at one point we will have a Bill of Rights. That is forthcoming and that will be happening. The reason that’s going to take a bit of time is because we want to survey a broad cross section of the industry and we want to have a diverse group of people put in their concerns. There’s lots of different publications and there’s lots of different writers. That’s going to end up as a pretty diverse list so we want to have a Bill of Rights to match.
JH: Being a collective of journalists, do you think it’ll be pretty easy to get this stuff out to the public as you have multiple contacts in the industry and everyone in the FJU is a writer by nature?
JG: Absolutely. I keep going back to the numbers we actually have. The main two publications I write for I’ve done so for five years. When I run into people or when people contact me, they assume I’m a staff writer for this publication. People see a byline on a publication and assume that person is a staff writer. There’s not a lot of people in the US that are journalists. We’re a small number of the population, but a lot of us have some pretty big platforms, and pretty big audiences. That’s definitely an advantage for when this Bill of Rights and list of grievances come out. We’ll be able to promote them very effectively.
AO: [Freelancers] might actually be the largest group of people contributing to the news. It’s unclear because the numbers aren’t very forthright, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics has numbers on self-employed writers and numbers on fully employed media-workers. If you look at that we vastly outnumber them. It suggests that while staff jobs are being shed, freelance jobs are growing.
JG: If we’re not in the majority we will be shortly. Just like everything else. Pick any industry and you’ll see a massive growth of independent contractors that are operating across the economic spectrum. I’m sure there are other workers across other industries that are having these conversations, too. Increasingly we’re all going to be independent contractors, that’s just the way things are right now. You can look at that as a bad thing but I look at it as a positive thing because if we all start talking to each other we can be the catalyst for better working conditions.