Welcome to the second half of my Q&A with journalist and academic Nicole Cohen. Part 1 is available here.
Jaclyn Law: You wrote an article for Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society, titled “Negotiating Writers’ Rights: Freelance Cultural Labour and the Challenge of Organizing.” You suggested that a union could be “the most effective way to challenge powerful publishers.” Unions for Canadian freelancers are a relatively recent development. Why, historically, has it been difficult to organize freelancers to take collective action?
Nicole Cohen: I think the history of PWAC as an organization is instructive here. When PWAC was forming in the late 1970s, there was a big debate about whether to become a union or a professional association. Ultimately it became a professional association, but at its formation the group was oriented to spirited resistance: it negotiated contracts with 19 magazines and twice threatened to go on strike.
That spirit faded over the decades, but recently we have seen renewed energy around organizing freelancers, both from the Canadian Freelance Union and the Canadian Media Guild, which has long represented freelancers at the CBC but is now organizing freelancers across the media industries. This is exciting, and I think the recent contracts introduced by TC Media, The Toronto Star, and other media companies are spurring freelancers into renewed action—they have had enough. There has been an increase in public outcry, meetings, and campaigns in the past few months, which is promising.
There are, of course, challenges to organizing freelancers, but I wanted to begin my answer to this question by pointing out that it is not impossible, as most assume, and there are many historical examples of freelancers successfully organizing (see, for example, freelancers in film and television, in the visual arts, and the Freelancers Union in the United States, which is the fastest-growing workers’ organization in America).
That said, there are specific conditions that make organizing freelancers in Canada difficult. For example, freelancers work alone, isolated from one another, and often don’t know other freelancers (this makes it difficult to organize to withhold labour or services, for example). Freelancers have long had antagonistic relationships with unions, as newsroom unions worked to limit the amount of work contracted to freelancers (this is changing, as the CEP is now the parent union of the CFU). Legally, the structures of labour representation in Canada are built on a model of single-workplace bargaining, which makes it difficult to organize workers who work for multiple employers or on multiple worksites to collectively bargain.
What I found interesting is that the skills one needs to develop to be a successful freelancer, and the structure of freelance journalism as highly individualized work, mean that freelancers develop highly individualized coping strategies and particular occupational identities (as individuals, entrepreneurs, and professionals) that are not conducive to collective action or organizing.
Finally, in a small industry based on reputation, many freelancers are hesitant to speak out or complain, for fear of losing work (Amber Nasrulla’s recent post on Story Board speaks to this problem).
There are challenges, of course, but it’s not impossible to organize freelancers to collectively confront the challenges they face. There is a lot of activity going on right now around contracts, which is encouraging.
JL: Many freelancers do traditional media work such as article writing and copy editing in combination with corporate work, which is typically work-for-hire—freelancers don’t retain copyright and don’t expect to, and they are often paid better rates. Is this the way of the future, in terms of having a viable freelance career? What could it mean for the profession of journalism?
NC: Freelancers have always done other work to sustain themselves, especially in Canada, where we have smaller media markets, fewer companies and lower rates of pay than, for example, in the United States.
What I found in my survey was that freelancers note that they are doing more and more of the corporate or teaching or non-journalism-related work and less journalism, and many express frustration at this because they got into freelancing specifically to do journalism. In my survey, most freelancers say they want to write long-form, investigative journalism or books, but most earn all or some of their living from corporate writing.
Of course, not all freelancers are journalists and many do not want to be. The problem, however, is that fewer people are able to earn a living doing journalistic work even though an increasing amount of journalistic work is being outsourced to freelancers. I think this has several implications. For one, it means that skilled journalists committed to their craft are leaving the occupation. It means that journalism will increasingly become an occupation for only those who can afford to be a journalist, which increasingly means being able to sustain oneself as a freelancer. This will have the effect of limiting whose voices and perspectives will be heard.
Ultimately, the challenges freelance journalists face affect the quality of content in media. Low pay means that people focus on the stories that are faster to produce in order to make freelancers’ time worthwhile, and we will lose the kind of journalism freelancers have traditionally excelled at: long form, more creative, challenging types of journalism.
JL: Is there an upside to precarious employment? In an age of newsroom layoffs and outsourcing, could freelancers be better off in some ways—more adaptable, more responsive to the market? There’s been a lot of talk about the creative class, and recent developments like communal workspaces and the benefits of technology for mobile workers. Are these developments a good thing?
NC: I would never say there is an upside to precarious employment—research consistently shows that conditions of precarious employment have negative implications for workers across the labour market: lower wages, economic and social insecurity, no access to benefits or social protections, and risk of poor physical and mental health, for example. But I do think it’s important to recognize that many people do choose to work as freelancers and become self-employed—this is not entirely a top-down process (even though a quick scan of job postings and a look at the numbers of layoffs in media in this country show that it is getting more and more difficult to find employment in media, especially for writers).
Self-employment offers opportunities and advantages, and I think historically we can think of freelance cultural workers as refusing to engage in waged-labour and seeking ways to be autonomous and in control of their work and their lives. And the ability of freelancers to have access to workspaces and mobile technologies and, perhaps, even ways to self-publish, does show promising signs that workers can, potentially, liberate themselves from employers.
The challenge, however, is that in our economy, security is tied to employment, and although we have a rise of self-employment and freelancing, we are not seeing an increase in social protections and institutions to support these workers or this form of work—our social policy and security is tied to employment. And while many individuals do succeed as freelancers (interestingly, they are usually the ones advocating that we all become freelancers), self-employment is polarizing: most earn low incomes, experience insecurity, and would prefer secure work.
I think it’s important to look at the power relations that underpin freelance work: who is benefiting, and at whose expense? And what do we need to do to make flexible work flexible (and secure) for workers, not just provide flexibility for companies to offload the risks and costs of production onto individuals.
JL: Can you talk briefly about your current research?
NC: My doctoral research investigated traditional realms of freelance journalism, specifically newspaper and magazine publishing. I am now beginning to research new publishing models that have emerged in the digital age, or digital-first journalism, and the production practices that are made possible by the rise and spread of a freelance media workforce. I am interested in examining what possibilities exist to improve media workers’ autonomy, opportunities, and material conditions, and in investigating the social and power relations emerging with a new era of digital publishing.
I am also currently collaborating with Greig de Peuter and Enda Brophy on a research project we have called “Cultural Workers Organize.” We are investigating how cultural workers in a range of flexible employment forms (freelancers, interns, contract workers, the self-employed) in the most vaunted sectors of the creative economy (media, fashion, art, etc.) are collectively responding to precarious employment. We are examining experiments happening on the margins of the labour movement globally to respond to precarity (you can read more at our website, culturalworkersorganize.org).