Newsrooms Are Unionizing. What Does That Mean for Freelancers?

By Emily Gaudette August 30th, 2018

When Gawker Media unionized in the summer of 2015, the Columbia Journalism Review called it a catalyst for the entire industry. By joining the Writers Guild of America East, Gawker broke the proverbial dam. Soon after, the union was running campaigns at outlets like Vice, Huffington Post, and MTV News. Many more newsrooms have unionized since then, while others have butted heads with reluctant corporate management.

One reason for all the unionization is the instability that journalists have experienced in recent years. Fewer writing jobs offer benefits or a livable wage, and media brands are now more likely to hire part-timers, freelancers, interns, fellows, and “permalancers” to get content online at the lowest cost possible. (Even under most union contracts, these kinds of workers are considered ineligible for benefits.)

All of this puts freelancers in a tight spot, ethically and professionally. Should they support their full-time brethren or cut ties and scoop up assignments increasingly assigned on an ad-hoc basis? Perhaps more urgently, is it time for freelancers to organize themselves?

To answer these questions, The Freelancer spoke with representatives from the NewsGuild, which represents The New Yorker, The New York Times, and Mic. Here’s what we learned about the complex reality of freelancing in a rapidly unionizing industry.

Why don’t unions protect newsroom freelancers?

Freelancers were once considered a problem for journalist unions. “A long time ago,” said Bernie Lunzer, president of NewsGuild, “freelancers were viewed as the enemy. Bargain units would advocate for ways to control freelance assignments and restrict them, understandably so. It can be a source of cheap labor and that becomes a problem for staff.”

In other words, organizers might have perceived freelancers as undermining their efforts to secure fair wages, slipping under the wire and working at an unsustainable cost. Now that many media brands have laid off huge chunks of their newsrooms, however, the scales have tipped in the freelancers’ favor.

“We had to recognize that freelancers can’t be the enemy,” Lunzer said. “Many of them would take a full-time job if they could only find one.”

How can freelancers support newsroom unionizing efforts?

For freelancers who want to support full-timers in their quest to organize, the Guild stresses education and outreach above all else. “Do what you can to make yourself aware of the issues,” Lunzer said. “Stay connected and recognize that if people organize and improve their ability to control their own situations, the jobs will be improved as well. A rising tide will lift all boats.”

While Lunzer admitted that NewsGuild lacks a strategy for garnering freelance support, he pointed to freelance journalists like Missoula Independent columnist Dan Brooks, who are carrying the banner for their staffer colleagues, despite being ineligible for union benefits. “We have to make [freelancers] understand that their fates are intertwined with staffers,” Lunzer said. “In many communities right now, it is the unions fighting for a path to sustainable journalism as opposed to owners who are employing a fatalistic, profit-driven approach.”

Is it okay to pitch a publication that just laid off its staff?

This is a thorny question, and ultimately it comes down to personal feelings. Newsroom management will often hire freelancers to keep costs low and avoid having to pay benefits. Union writers ask that freelancers tread lightly in these cases.

“If you know there’s a hostile relationship and you don’t want to get caught in the middle, it would be helpful to understand the situation by talking to a writer,” Lunzer said. “Find out exactly what’s going on. In many cases, a freelancer might find that they don’t want to be in the middle of that mess.”

What if I’m a freelancer and I want to join a union?

While freelancers are often ineligible for union benefits at the newsrooms they serve, there are options for organization. Freelancers Union, a non-profit advocacy group, currently covers 57 million people without full-time salaries and benefits. The organization provides access to insurance benefits like medical, dental, liability, life, and short and long-term disability.

Union members also get a pretty steep discount on co-working spaces and educational programs as well as help with tax forms and networking opportunities. Membership is free, and the union is currently lobbying for increased rights for freelancers.

Ultimately, freelancers need to balance their financial needs against the value they place on the right to organize—and the kind of publishing ecosystem they want to navigate in the future.

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