How Montreal Freelancers Are Organizing

Marianne Garneau sits down with three members of a union in Montreal organizing freelance workers such as translators and journalists. Hannah, Selena and Pauline are members of S’ATTAQ, the “Syndicat des Travailleuses et Travailleurs Autonomes du Québec” — i.e. “Quebec freelancers union” — an organization of the Montreal IWW. They describe how they use direct action and solidarity to fight for freelancers’ stolen wages and aim to improve working conditions throughout freelance-driven industries.

What is S’ATTAQ?

Hannah: S’ATTAQ is a collection of contract and freelance workers coming together to provide solidarity and direct action. Being a freelancer or a contractor, you are often left in a very precarious position. [In Quebec,] there are a lot of government-run places that can help if you are an employee, but as a contract worker, you don’t have the same kind of security. S’ATTAQ gives that solidarity and support across disciplines, so you can have support, [and] not just from people who are in your own industry.

When and how did it start?

Selena: The project began because I was working as freelancer, and at one point in Montreal we had several freelance workers in the branch, and so we decided to start an organizing campaign within the freelance industry. The reason we decided to do a freelance-wide campaign was in the spirit of IWW’s idea of the One Big Union, but also that freelance workers, regardless of industry, have very similar struggles, and can support each other through those struggles.

Feb 2017 was when we first started meeting as an organizing campaign. We just had our 2-year anniversary.

What is an example of struggles you have waged, or ways that you have supported each other?

Hannah: I really want to talk about two cases. The first is a worker who has been a member of S’ATTAQ for the last eight months or so, and who was working in the game industry. She was fired after raising concerns about employee treatment in a public forum. And then we filed a wrongful dismissal claim, and the worker was able to receive compensation and acknowledgment of that wrongful dismissal by the employer.

The second case is a long-term project that we’ve been working on for 14 months now. The long story short is that, through the course of working on a project for a client, she suffered PTSD and was no longer able to work in her industry. So we are working with a lawyer to pursue compensation for her. We met with the employer in February and we’re close to a financial settlement, and we’re very confident that we will receive a substantial compensation.

[We also have] workshops. So, we will have people documenting their skill base. For instance, Emily Wilson did a translating workshop, and it had huge support from people in that industry, and people of all different skills. There were people who are already in the industry, there were people who were just interested, and they were able to get connections, and also just information about how to start and what tools to use. And then Emily talked about instances of not getting paid, and how you can use solidarity and direct action to then go to the office and get the money that you’ve been promised.

I think I heard about an instance of translators not getting paid and taking direct action…

Selena: That was actually Emily. In the Montreal community, there are only so many people who do translations, and a lot of people know each other. So there was this one client – this is a great example of direct action support of freelancers, although it wasn’t through the union, it was just that Emily was a member of the union. She had a client that wasn’t paying her, and she happened to know one of the other translators on the project, and one time she was talking to them just casually, and she said “This client still hasn’t paid me,” and the other person said, “They haven’t paid me either!” And they talked with the third person on the project, and that translator wasn’t getting paid either. So the three of them decided, next time we get contacted by this client, none of us are going to accept the translation unless they pay us [first].

So on the same day, each of them got contacted by the client, the client asked them to do a translation, they all gave the client the same answer, “I will accept this translation if you pay me, but not until you pay me,” and that same day, or maybe the next day, all three received payment. It was $2000 that Emily was owed from that client – I don’t know what amount the other translators were owed, but it was a significant amount of money.

We’re also launching a “Reclaim Your Pay” for freelancers campaign.

What does a “Reclaim Your Pay” campaign look like?

Hannah: One of the things we have been doing is supporting people who have not been paid when they should have been. So one of our primary projects right now is working with a journalist. We are currently negotiating with her previous employer about lost wages and damages. And because it has been moving forward, we want to open that campaign up [more broadly] to contract workers in Montreal, so we can help get them the money they are owed.

Selena: We’re going to be emulating what the Montreal IWW branch has already done with great success. They poster all the areas of the city that they think would be good targets for outreach, and there’s a Reclaim Your Pay committee, and every time someone contacts the branch to reclaim their pay, there is somebody who takes the lead on that [case], and assembles a team of people and helps to coordinate meetings, and helps to coordinate the branch’s actions.

I always suggest Reclaim Your Pay to all [IWW] branches and new organizing projects because it’s a small-scale project that has immediate rewards. It builds the skills you need for a longer-term organizing project and gives a short-term boost of morale and energy. They are generally successful, and they help sharpen skills for bigger campaigns.

Hannah: Freelancers don’t have a lot of backup if they don’t get that final payment, so this can help build a freelance community, with a direct way that we can help win.

Selena: This is something we are in the process of launching [in S’ATTAQ], and our plan is to poster in different areas of the city, particularly where freelancers tend to work, and create a team of people on our side who are willing to be project leads on Reclaim Your Pays.

What kinds of tactics do you use to get people their payment?

Selena: Anything from helping them to craft emails, to sending demand letters on their behalf, from the union, to going with them to meet with their client or employer, and any escalation from there. Reclaim Your Pay in Montreal has used social media strategies, where they will give bad online reviews of the company, or picketed outside and handed out pamphlets, and I think in a recent campaign they won $800 for 20 workers each.

How often would you say it happens that freelancers don’t get that final payment?

Hannah: I’ve always been successful in getting it, but I’ve had payments delayed for 6 months before.

Pauline: I’ve had a client not pay for several months, and I had sent them several emails to remind them they hadn’t paid me, and eventually I just sent them an email saying I would make a complaint to the CNESST [Commission des normes, de l’équité, de la santé et de la sécurité du travail], which is the Quebec organization that handles work complaints. And immediately after I got the check.

Hannah: Although, fun fact: freelancers aren’t eligible to make complaints to that body.

Pauline: That contract shouldn’t have been classified as freelance. I showed it to a lawyer who told me “this shouldn’t be classified as freelance.”

Do you guys sometimes negotiate contacts on behalf of freelancers?

Selena: No. We’ve had some workshops about drafting contracts, and how to negotiate, and the power you have in signing a contract. Knowing your rights, and how to leverage contracts in your favor.

One of our members, Alayna, is a contract lawyer, so when people have questions about their contract, and especially about intellectual property, they can get some guidance from Alayna, since that is part of what her profession is.

How many members do you have and how many did you start with? What has growth been like? 

Selena: We have 25 members. We were 5 or 6 for about a year, then moved up to 12, then in the fall we started doing a lot of organizing with the Game Workers Unite, and that’s when we really saw a membership spike. GWU is, in their own words, “an international grassroots movement and organization dedicated to unionizing the game industry.” They work with all workers in the industry, to advocate for their rights and [for] a better employment environment. Though not a union themselves, they help coordinate education and connections [to unions] for precarious game works whom this would benefit.

What industries do you cover?

Hannah: We are currently focusing on three industries: game workers, translators, and journalists. We recently reached out to some journalism students at Concordia, as they were doing some really good activism work and strikes around unpaid internships. But in our membership, we also have photographers, writers, artists, lawyers, mixed media artists.

Do you have a position or a strategy in relation to getting workers reclassified as employees, when they are misclassified as freelancers?

Hannah: Actually that came up a lot with a local video game testing company. They were classifying workers as contract workers but a lot of what was in their contract, and the expectations of them, were what you would see for an employee. So one of the tactics we were going to work on was reclassifying them.

Selena: This is a huge campaign, and it’s long-term, and so it’s a work in progress. In our membership criteria, we do not [say] that you have to be classified as a freelance worker. You only have to be interested in organizing in the freelance industry. And one of the reasons we did that was because there are lots of freelancers are classified as such by their employer, but who would actually prefer to have employee status. And we didn’t want them to lose their status in S’ATTAQ if the achieved that. So Hannah right now is not working as a freelancer, but she is still organizing with us.

Selena: We’ve been working on a “Know Your Rights” workshop series. We hosted our first one May 7. The next one will be held on July 17 and will be specifically focused on engaging with workers in the game industry.

Hannah: It’s been primarily focused on the game workers, but we want to do another one for broader freelancers. It’s about being able to identify whether you should be classified as a contract worker or an employee, and then the rights that you have, with both of those status, with [respect to] vacation pay, termination, negotiating, things like that.

It will talk about the issues that happen in a broader range, but then there will also be focus on the issues in a given industry. One of the primary focuses for the game workers will be on overtime, because that is an industry that uses culture, and commitment to the company, to have unpaid overtime. So just so people know what recourse they have, when that happens, to get paid appropriately.

So part of what you are trying to do is raise the floor in the industry.

Hannah: Absolutely, because if everyone knows that they need to demand getting paid for their overtime, that can become and industry standard in Montreal.

Selena: Popular education is a radical act. And often, as a freelancer, you don’t know things, and you don’t know what you don’t know. And so then you get exploited in ways that you don’t even know you’re being exploited. So one of the goals with our workshops is helping freelancers to know their rights as workers, which will help them be further empowered.

Hannah: Also, there were a number of changes to Quebec law in January [2019], and the previous July [2018], so we’re making sure people are updated about that. Things like, you now have paid sick days, which was not part of labor law in Quebec previously.

Selena: Or: you have to be given your schedule five days in advance.

How often do you find that employers are not meeting their obligations, or that they’re not even meeting them on paper, in the contract?

Hannah: I think very consistently. In the game industry in particular, they give the schedule for their employees not even 24 hours beforehand.

Selena: All of these workers are being misclassified as freelancers, and the company then uses that to exploit them. “You’re a freelancer, that’s why you don’t get your schedule in advance!”

Pauline: You have to be available all the time.

Hannah: If you’re new to the company, you’ll receive a text at 3pm to tell you whether you are working the next day.

Pauline: 3pm is generous.

Hannah: Sorry, 6pm.

Which makes no sense, because if they’re commanding your labor, you’re not really a freelancer.

Selena: This is the case where a lawyer looked at the contract for two seconds and said, “These are employees.” They’re told what time they have to come, they have to go to a certain location, they get given the tools of the trade – those are the three basic requirements to determine whether you are an employee or a freelancer. And another thing is, we submitted a claim to the CNESST about this employer and it was accepted. If these workers were actually freelancers, the CNESST does not deal with those claims. So we have concrete proof they are workers. But their misclassification is a tool that is used against them, to exploit them. And unfortunately, a lot of workers just accept this misclassification because they don’t know any better, like “Oh it’s so great to be a freelancer.” Well it’s not great to be a freelancer if you’re being paid $13 an hour.