It’s time to add freelancers to media union contracts

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).

Wishful thinking

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.

12 thoughts on “It’s time to add freelancers to media union contracts

  1. Cecile Gladel

    It was Nicolas Langelier, President of AJIQ who said that at Christiane Charette. Freelancers need to be include by differents ways…to be discussed. Remember l’AJIQ (association des journalistes indépendants du Québec) is link with the CSN and FNC. I am the VP communications of l’AJIQ.

  2. Nicolas Langelier

    Great post. I’m the one who made the freelancers/union comment, btw.

    «by protecting freelancers, the union makes it less attractive for employers to use them instead of salaried employees to save money»: this is essentially what we (at AJIQ) are telling unions — we are still trying to build that common front you talk about. And this was also the thinking behind the Canadian Freelance Union experiment. But old habits die hard, and unions are still so much in a mind-set of trying to block all forms of freelance work… In the end, it might turn out to be their downfall, if they don’t change their ways soon.

  3. Michael Spat

    Great article. Here is my two cents:

    Unions were created to protect internal employees’ interest, at the expense of all outside people. That would be fine as long as all organizations have an union — which is not true. Therefore, in our society, a few lucky ones are far more protected than others.

    Unions work well in public sector, since public services don’t need to make profits to survive. However, unions may not work in private sector, because a private corporation is responsible for its shareholders, and it has to make enough profits or go bankrupt.

    That’s why CBC’s union can add freelancers to their contract, while Journal de Montréal can’t — CBC doesn’t need to make a profit, but Journal de Montréal is fighting for its life now.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      I don’t see how public companies are better than private ones for unions. Auto makers have very strong unions, and they’re private.

      And “Journal de Montréal is fighting for its life now” is debatable. The union argues it’s still making a hefty profit.

  4. Shawn

    This is all very well-thought out. I just can’t get past what it is you do when publicly call someone a douchebag and then have to bump into him at some local press conference or event. Avoid eye contact, I suppose.

    1. Fagstein Post author

      Richard Martineau isn’t going to any press conferences, and he wouldn’t recognize me unless Patrick Lagacé pointed me out.

      Besides, if he blacklisted everyone who called him a douchebag…

      (Incidentally, though I disagree with his decision and I don’t like his work as a professional blowhard, I don’t dislike the guy as a person. This is the character he’s made a career out of, and it works for him.)

  5. Michael Spat

    When a private company can generate enough profits to sustain its union, there is not difference between private and public sectors.

    Auto makers HAD very strong unions, when people could afford to buy cars made in North America.

  6. Genevieve Lefebvre

    Well, amusingly enough, as a “freelance” I gave my “démission” au Journal de Montréal in december as a sign of… well, I hate to use big pompous words carelessly, it gives them a bad name. I also gave $578.00 in “union fees” (cotisations en français) to the STIJM in 2008.

    I wonder if the union will send the money back? You know, as a sign of that famous principle. What is it called, again? Ah, yes, “solidarité”.

  7. Don Genova

    Hi, I’m the president of the freelance branch at the Canadian Media Guild. Thanks for a great article that points out the challenges freelancers face. We’re actually just voting on a new agreement with the CBC, one that sees our minimum rates go up by 2.5 per cent in each year of a five-year deal. Text rates will also increase to .45/word by 2011. That’s still not a great per word rate, but better than many other publications.

    I agree that it is a very difficult time to ask employers to consider putting their freelancers inside a collective agreement. But the Guild is here to help anyone who wants to try, or any freelancer who has questions about their basic rights. You can read more about the our freelance branch at

  8. Josh

    “Unions work well in public sector, since public services don’t need to make profits to survive.”

    Funny, I would have put it the exact opposite way. Look at public transit strikes, for starters! They hurt the public, and actually *benefit* management, because having public transit idling means money is being saved.

    Unions work well in situations where they can strike to hurt management by preventing them from making money, not in situations where the public good is the victim.

  9. Michael Spat

    Josh, by “unions work well”, I meant unions work well for internal employees.

    Your “public transit strikes” example just demonstrates again unions work better in public sector, at the expense of all outsider, in this case, the public.


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