A Year of Organizing Freelance Journalists

The Industrial Workers of the World Freelance Journalists Union is one year old. A member-organizer describes the campaign.

In March of 2019, the Industrial Workers of the World Freelance Journalists Union unintentionally went public. Having recently settled on a formal name for the organization, committee members were attempting to subtly stake out corresponding web assets, but the IWW FJU’s Twitter account — the social media platform most popular with journalists — immediately exploded. Within 24 hours, the union had received more than a hundred requests from freelancers looking to learn more. The IWW FJU was officially on the map.

Although that day in March is sometimes referred to as the union’s launch, work on what would become the IWW FJU had actually started back in September of 2018. Inspired by a wave of successful union elections among staff journalists and the informal organizing already being undertaken by some freelancers, the New York City branch of the IWW officially launched a campaign organizing freelance journalists. On the eve of that anniversary — and on the heels of the IWW FJU’s first victory — we look back on the previous year.

The issues facing freelance journalists

Despite working for a variety of publications covering different subjects, many freelance journalists face the same challenges. Arguably, the most egregious of these is delayed payment. Work in freelance journalism is obtained via two routes: pitching an idea for an article to an editor, or having an editor assign a subject to you. Either way, payment is often mandated, in a contract, to be made within 30 days following publication of the story. Publication can be held up by forces within and without a freelancer’s control (say, the freelancer choosing to prioritize other assignments, or the editor dragging their feet on revisions), but payments are typically only considered late 30 days after the story goes live.

Despite legally binding contracts mandating timely payment, it is common for publications to pay two to three months after this 30-day window. Because individual freelancers often lack the resources to enforce these contracts via legal means, and are intrinsically dissuaded from doing so if they hope to receive more work from the delinquent publication, freelancers will sometimes have hundreds or thousands of dollars in overdue invoices, which they are implicitly expected to float.

Besides delayed payments, freelancers also face other systemic challenges. Many new to the industry are expected to work “for exposure” (that is, for free or unlivable rates); writers covering sensitive topics are forced to shoulder the burden of legal liability and harassment from angry subjects and readers; health insurance is either a clusterfuck to obtain or simply out of reach. All of these problems follow the same dynamic: because freelancers are individually outgunned by the publications that they rely on for their livelihoods, they are forced to work under extremely exploitative conditions.

Staff journalists have demonstrated, to various degrees of success, that some of the ills facing writers can be addressed through organizing. In an industry where dozens, if not hundreds, of jobs are being shed at a time, staffers’ unions have brought a modicum of stability through collective bargaining, winning their members severance in otherwise ruthless mass layoffs. But where their union contracts end and freelancing begins is precisely the point that the industry is now pivoting about. As the gutting of the website Mic illustrates, staffers’ unions are only useful insofar as there are staffers; after being sold, Mic was relaunched without staffers — relying almost entirely on freelancers instead. If freelancers are not to be made de facto scabs, then they must be organized. And because staffers’ unions, bound by red tape and budgets, are not organizing freelancers, freelancers must organize themselves.

There have been some efforts to organize freelance journalists in the past, primarily around “minimum agreements.” These agreements, between publications like The NationJacobin, and In These Times, and the National Writers Union, stipulate minimum rates, rights, and so on for freelancers. It is a tactic which can be successful, provided it is backed by collective direct action pushing the publications to concede power, rather than just offering them an avenue to save face. Without such militancy, the agreements only codify below-market rates and the lowest standards that such progressive publications can get away with without offending their ideological supporters.

The IWW FJU’s approach

Unlike most other workforces, freelance journalists are inherently decentralized and isolated. Their only points of contact with the publications that they write for are editors with whom they correspond via phone and email, and their only points of contact with each other are the in-person and online professional networks they happen into. There is no workplace where they all gather; thus “mapping the workplace” (that is, locating freelancers and understanding how they fit into the industry) was the IWW FJU’s first challenge.

In order to map the workplace, IWW FJU organizers — most of whom are freelancers themselves — began by working through their own personal and professional networks, conducting one-on-one in-person meetings or calls. These one-on-ones played on the standard AEIOU (Agitate, Education, Inoculate, Organize, Unionize) model, asking freelancers about the publications they wrote for, their problems, how they thought freelancers could work together to address those issues, and what, if any, concerns they had with organizing. These conversations were followed up with a request to connect the organizer with other freelancers who might be interested in organizing, thereby building a tree of contacts and a map of who lives where, who writes for whom, etc. Via this method, the IWW FJU has been able to conduct hundreds of one-on-ones with freelancers around the world.

Because publications, regardless of their location, rely on freelancers around the world, the union’s organizing must be global. In order to cultivate solidarity, the IWW FJU has also refused to hold hard and fast distinctions between “journalists” and “bloggers,” instead welcoming all writers in news media. The union’s sudden prominence and novelty also attracted the attention of parallel professionals, such as photographers, documentarians, and publicists, whom organizers are staying in touch with to support possible spin-off campaigns.

These one-on-one conversations not only facilitated the mapping of the workplace, but brought freelancers into the organizing process. If they consented, they were added to a listserv, through which organizing tasks are administered. These include conducting one-on-ones, assisting with social media, and even spearheading new initiatives, like creating press passes. This allows new freelancers to become involved and to stay connected with the union.

The listserv, along with monthly conference calls and occasional in-person meetings, also allowed IWW FJU organizers to coalesce around a strategy setting the groundwork for the union’s first formal campaign. Organizers have issued a survey to freelance journalists, which will collect the hard data necessary to make a decision about which publication(s) to target, about which issue(s), etc. The survey was launched in June of 2019 and analysis of the results is forthcoming this month.

Already, a small victory

While conducting one-on-ones, launching a survey, planning its first campaign, and establishing its internal infrastructure (writing bylaws, electing officers, etc.), the IWW FJU has additionally been responding to the issues brought to it by the freelance community. In June of 2019, the union received multiple complaints from freelancers about a provision in Vox’s contract that prevents writers from openly discussing their rates. The IWW FJU started a Twitter campaign encouraging Vox contributors to email the union their rates, which it anonymized and published. The campaign proved extremely popular, with thousands of likes and retweets, and nearly a hundred freelance journalists reaching out to provide their rates. (The union followed up by scheduling one-on-ones with those freelancers.) The campaign also proved successful, with Vox announcing earlier this month that they had revised their contract, stating that they “understand the important issues inherent in the rate transparency discussion and are happy to proactively permit such disclosure.”

The victory against Vox was of course welcome, but unexpected. Only a year into its existence, the IWW FJU remains focused on planning a much more traditional campaign. But this small win demonstrates that, should the union be agile and responsive to the needs of freelancers, freelancers will be supportive, going so far as to engage in collective direct action with no notice. Organizing far outside of the traditional models, the IWW FJU will certainly have to be open to experimenting with such novel tactics. Hopefully this is but the first of many victories to come.