In a half-hour panel discussion with Radio-Canada's Christiane Charette on Wednesday, some of the most respected minds in Quebec media analysis discussed the lockout at the Journal de Montréal and the debate over whether freelance columnists like Richard Martineau, Stéphane Gendron and Joseph Facal should continue writing their columns.
One comment (there were a bunch of guys there and it's hard to distinguish them by voice alone) was that unions and freelancers need to come together and not see each other as the enemy. One of the arguments Martineau and others use for continuing to write is that the union does nothing for them, they wouldn't get strike pay nor would the union intervene if they were suddenly fired.
Now, Martineau is a world-class douchebag. He's a product of the Quebecor Media empire, with a column in the Journal, a blog at Canoë and a show on LCN. He's paid to be a blowhard and scream fake outrage at everything while being politically incorrect for its own sake. (This is a stark contrast to his work at Les Francs-Tireurs, which I actually like because there he asks people questions and listens to their answers.) He holds quite a bit of influence and wouldn't be on the street if he stood with the locked-out journalists. He's refusing to stop on principle, and to continue being a douchebag.
But he's right. The union does nothing for him. It does nothing for any freelancer. And neither do most unions.
That needs to change.
Freelance isn't free
Way back when, before my time, the idea of a freelance columnist was a rarity. Really, it seems like such a contradiction in terms: a columnist is relied upon to have a regular presence in a newspaper, whereas a freelancer is a one-time contributor who's being given a few bucks for an article.
But freelancing has become such a useful tool for media companies: You can fire freelancers whenever you want, there's an almost endless supply of them, they don't take vacations, and they'll sign just about any contract you put in front of their faces. When taking total cost into account, it's much cheaper and more flexible to get a freelancer than a full-time or part-time employee.
And so we enter the age of the freelance columnist. Some are that way by choice, because they want the freedom to work for other organizations, or to syndicate their content. Some are former columnist-employees who have taken buyouts but decided to continue their columns under a different contractual relationship. And some are just people who have real day jobs in other industries and don't want to become full-time journalists.
Along with these vedettes, though, are the freelancers who aren't that way by choice. Those aspiring young journalists whose souls haven't yet been crushed. The ones who sign overly abusive contracts, work for peanuts and beg for more. With such a compacted media landscape, and so few corporations in charge of so much media, they have no choice but to accept whatever abuse is thrown at them in order to realize their dream of being a journalist.
But it doesn't have to be that way.
CBC provides an example
Take a look at the contract (which is about to expire) between the CBC and the Canadian Media Guild (PDF), which represents all employees outside of Quebec and Moncton, N.B. (which are represented by another union). The deal was worked out after the 2005 lockout, and speaks quite a bit about contract and freelance work. Specifically:
- It sets minimum wage rates for specific types of original freelance work, and requires additional remuneration for additional use of the work
- It provides certain minimum rights (copyright, moral rights) for freelance work
- It includes a provision which spells out that related expenses are paid by the employer
- It bans working "on spec", in which work is done before it is sold, and provides for a minimum "kill fee", for work that's approved but then never used.
- It bans employees working freelance gigs on the side and requires that such work be paid at overtime rates
- Finally, it states that the freelancer is (for the limited purposes of the contract) a member of the union (the union even has a freelance chapter and a guide for freelancers), and must pay dues from the freelance pay.
The standardized contract is probably the most important part of this. The company can't go around and start demanding more rights of powerless freelancers without first getting it approved by the more powerful union. It's part of the reason why the Periodical Writers Association of Canada supported the union in the lockout.
It's not perfect, and it's been criticized as not doing enough, but it's much more than most media union contracts have to give rights to freelancers.
And by protecting freelancers, the union makes it less attractive for employers to use them instead of salaried employees to save money. Instead, freelancers are used where they are supposed to: For occasional work that can't be done by regular employees.
While regular employees aren't exactly swimming in cash at the CBC, freelancers at least are not overly exploited (so-called "casuals" are another problem entirely, and that's another post).
Of course, this is the worst time for media unions to start demanding sweeping new rights. A union in negotiation going to the employer and trying to set a standardized contract for freelancers would quickly get laughed out of the room. The time to create a common front between freelancers and employees was years or even decades ago, and it's not coming back anytime soon.
And so Martineau is right. Sadly. He's not turning the other cheek, and he's siding with the employer in a dispute with the employees, making it easier to continue putting out the newspaper and try to break the union. He's being a douchebag, but he has every right to be.
If the union had focused more on bringing freelancers into the fold and less on protecting their short work week and inflating their salaries, they might not be in this boat now.