“We Are Workers”: Inside the Push for a Freelance Workers’ Union

By Mary Steffenhagen

When Vox Media acquired New York Media in September 2019, the CEOs promised they wouldn’t lay off editorial staff. But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed everything and no media outlet has been immune. Vox furloughed nine percent of employees in mid-April for the next three months and announced pay cuts for some who remain. While this was a blow to the 100 or so employees who were furloughed, apparently, it could have been worse. The Vox Media Union tweeted that they had successfully negotiated for fewer furloughs than management originally planned, a guarantee of no layoffs for the next three months, and increased severance for possible future layoffs.

In the face of a crisis, the Vox Staff Union was able to use its collective power to push management to accept new conditions that were better for its workers. But what does it look like to exercise worker power when you don’t have a workplace? When you and your coworkers are scattered across a city, or a country? When you don’t just have one boss, but several? 

This is the situation that an ever-growing number of media workers faced as freelancers, even before the pandemic forced millions of Americans out of their workplaces. In the past few decades, the commodification of journalism has accelerated. It’s increasingly offloading the costs of production onto freelancers—freelancers who are constantly navigating an exhausting labyrinth of working standards and pay rates that can differ wildly by publication and company. 

In response, freelancers in media across America are organizing to improve their working conditions through collective action. One such group in New York City is called the Freelance Solidarity Project. Their goal is to first set industry standards, then raise them. They believe they are poised to make the most of a rising class consciousness that’s driving workers of all industries to band together and take risks.

Precarity is the norm, but does it have to be?

Freelancing in media and journalism can be isolating. Conditions and expectations are tenuous. The editor may be the only person you know at the publication you write for, and you likely communicate only through email. Even the best editors can’t guarantee payment on time. Publishers and media corporations keep freelancers in a state of uncertainty; if someone rocks the boat, there will always be another eager young writer to replace them. Precarity has been baked into freelancing and it benefits the bosses to keep it that way.

This precarity has intensified in the past two decades to a point of unsustainability. As alt-weeklies, indie publications, and regional newspapers folded in the face of failing ad models and the eruption of big tech, work standards established by unions collapsed with them. What emerged in their place were venture capital-driven, billionaire-owned corporations with no real institutional memory of organizing or unions—or having to answer to them. All of this is not only to workers’ detriment, but to the public’s. The vampire capitalists now running many media outlets prioritize profit over what should be public good. Our news, our media, our very culture is thus being shaped by capital.

Newly-organized staff unions in digital media and traditional newspapers have been able to claw back some power from management in the past five years. In 2015, staff at Gawker unionized. Though a few newsrooms had been unionized for decades, Gawker was the first major digital media website to do so. “Gawker’s move sparked a movement,” wrote Steven Greenhouse. This movement saw about 30 websites unionize in swift succession, not to mention the many traditional newspapers and magazines that followed suit. Megan McRobert, an organizer with the Writers’ Guild of America East (WGA) union, said she’s helped organize staff unions at Gimlet Media, Future Media, The Ringer, and Refinery 29 in the past year alone.

But as organizing has ramped up since 2015, so have layoffs. Gawker was shuttered by new owners in 2016. Gothamist was infamously shut down by its billionaire owner in October 2017, after workers announced their intent to unionize that March. In 2019, Vice Media laid off 250 workers, while BuzzFeed discarded 200. October 2019 saw the demise of Splinter News

In the midst of the pandemic, publications of all sizes have now been letting staff go at higher rates than before, slashing pay for those who remain and freezing budgets for freelance payments. Some have shut their doors altogether. Each new layoff or closure floods the shrinking job market with potential freelancers, and even before the pandemic, unionized outlets were not necessarily replacing staff jobs. They have little incentive to when union benefits don’t trickle down to freelancers, who are increasingly becoming the backbone of every type of “content creation.” 

“As more and more digital media publications unionize, more and more work is pushed into contract labor in an effort to not develop very deep ties or enforce deep responsibilities to employees,” Haley Mlotek explained. Mlotek (pronounced ‘melodic’) is a freelance journalist with bylines in The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, n+1, and more. She was elected co-chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project in November 2019.

The Freelance Solidarity Project is the latest in a recent wave of media unionizing, but it is one of a small few focused solely on freelancers instead of staffers. It emerged from a series of informal gatherings freelancers organized in New York City in the spring of 2018. They coalesced not just around concrete issues like pay rates and schedules, contracts and noncompetes, but also a shared yearning for a strong community. Some of them already knew each other and had been involved in staff unions at previous jobs. Many of them felt the creep of isolation and uncertainty into both their professional and personal lives. Members voted to officially become a new branch of the National Writers’ Union (NWU) in May 2019. 

“Once you’ve seen what collective bargaining can do, it’s sort of hard to see anything else,” Mlotek said.

The Project’s development illustrates a shift in which freelance professionals are identifying as workers with collective interests rather than individual competitors or entrepreneurs. 

“The work of organizing in our industry is to understand that we are workers, the content that we create is what is being sold, and that we do have power if we work collectively,” said Clio Chang, another member of the Project (with a delightful Twitter bio that concisely illustrates her support for organizing: “clio gives a bean to each worker”). 

Who do we think of as a “worker”?

Nicole Cohen, an associate professor at the University of Toronto and author of Writer’s Rights: Freelance Journalism in a Digital Age, said that journalists, writers, and other media workers have long been prevented from seeing themselves as part of a larger workers’ movement. During the mid-20th century, when journalism morphed from a low-wage job into a “middle-class occupation,” she said, journalists adopted a “professional” class identity rather than a “trade union identity.” This encouraged them to identify more with companies and management than to each other—or other workers in other industries, for that matter.

For the Freelance Solidarity Project, it’s vital that staffers and freelancers resist companies pitting them against each other. But freelance media workers have been caught in a contradiction. They’ve been considered “professionals” or “creatives” in a social sense, but their income is often closer to working-class income. 

When Cohen began studying digital media labor in 2007, she said freelancers were being encouraged to be “entrepreneurs” and to work on their “personal brands.” 

“People were not talking about exploitation. They weren’t talking about capitalism, about bosses making profit on the backs of precarious workers. They were really into individual competitiveness and professionalism over a labor-focused identity,” she said. 

As the gig economy exploded in the 2010s, it drew attention to the idea of theprecariat,” a new class of workers who earn less than white-collar “professionals” but have none of the job security that many blue-collar workers of the past had. The precariat spans many education levels and industries. Their class location is characterized by contract work, low wages, and the lack of staff benefits like health care and unions. Their precarity is compounded by America’s pitiful social safety net. The precariat includes undocumented agricultural workers, Uber drivers, unpaid interns, and freelance media workers alike. 

Cohen thinks that the union movement in digital media bears out not only a renewed class consciousness, but an identity shift for freelancers from siloed individuals to workers with common interests. This is not to say that freelance media workers face the same working conditions or even as urgent ones as, say, agricultural workers, Uber drivers, or sex workers—every freelancer I spoke to wanted to make this clear. It is to say that organizing across occupations and classes requires a recognition that all labor is commodification of the self to some degree. If freelance media workers identify with other, more disadvantaged workers, they can start to build a stronger workers’ movement.

In the past decade, Cohen said, “the discourse has shifted and sharpened labor and class analysis among freelance journalists in a way I haven’t seen before.” 

Free to work, but free to organize?

Despite this rising consciousness in digital media, the National Writers’ Union’s (NWU) primary tactic for raising standards at individual publications is legally tenuous. Historically, the NWU leveraged relationships with alt-weeklies to implement Letters of Agreement—“a less scary term for contracts,” NWU vice president David Hill jokes.

 Hill believes they have solid legal standing should these Letters be challenged, but the “elephant in the room,” he said, “is the Sherman Act.” 

The Sherman Act is an antitrust law passed in 1890, during the first Gilded Age, to prevent collusion and monopolies. While obviously intended to stymy huge corporate mergers, it has been used to attack Uber drivers who attempt to organize. Since freelance media workers and other gig workers are legally classified as individual businesses, anti-union agents can say that they’re violating the Sherman Act if they attempt to bargain collectively. The federal government could even criminally prosecute them. 

“It’s kind of terrifying because antitrust penalties are criminal!” said Hill. “If you lose this [hypothetical] case, that means the law and the government are saying that you’re engaging in price-fixing with other freelance writers.”

The tide may be turning here as the state of California just sued Uber and Lyft for misclassifying drivers as independent contractors instead of employees as a way to shirk providing them with living wages and benefits. In other states, for now, organizers like Hill are stuck. Since there’s no case law to set a precedent for legally upholding their Letters of Agreement, bringing a case to court could risk further organizing. 

Even so, the union has re-energized efforts to pilot Letters of Agreement at “friendly, left-wing” publications that already project pro-union and pro-worker values, said Hill. He’s negotiated Letters with Jacobin, In These Times, and The Nation. He reasons that public knowledge of the Letter is typically enough to hold these publications accountable; they know it would be bad PR for them to challenge workers’ rights. 

When publications don’t abide by the promised standards, the NWU has taken them to court. New York’s Freelance Isn’t Free Act of 2017 made non-payment of freelancers a crime. In 2018, the union successfully sued Ebony Magazine on behalf of 45 freelancers who were owed collectively $80,000 for over two years. NWU also sued and settled with Out Magazine in June 2019 on behalf of 25 freelancers who were owed more than $40,000. Another union, the Freelance Journalists’ Union of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), recently succeeded in compelling Outside Magazine to pay $150,000 in overdue payments to freelancers after almost a year of pressure. 

Using social media to gain public support for labor actions has also been critical for digital media workers. Megan McRobert, the organizer at WGA, recalled that back when Gawker was unionizing, the massive amount of publicity it generated drove people to contact the WGA about unionizing.

 “People were literally watching the Gawker campaign play out in real time,” McRobert said. Previously the WGA would have to scope out potential publications and reach out to them unsolicited. 

One of labor’s most historically effective tactics might first seem counterintuitive for freelancers: the strike. We’re used to thinking of strikes as physical actions like walkouts and workers in the streets. So what would a strike of remote workers look like? A virtual strike may have sounded odd just a few months ago, but labor organizers in many industries have recently had to adjust their strategies for social distancing. At its core, a strike is simply withholding labor and that’s certainly something freelancers can coordinate and do virtually. When Deadspin employees withdrew their labor in October 2019 over management’s directive to “stick to sports,” they effectively incapaciated the website to this day. The walkout also drew attention to the need for freelancer solidarity to strengthen the impact of the action, after one writer was roundly criticized online for “scabbing.”

It’s unclear what the critical mass of striking freelancers would be to actually stop work at enough publications to make a difference, but freelance journalist and Project member Natasha Lennard counters that you may simply need the right people to strike. Freelancers who have experience, profile, cultural capital, and clout “are the kind of people that it would be very difficult for a publication to work without,” she said. 

“And if it’s respected people who show goodwill and solidarity, hopefully young people who are desperate to get an ‘in’ to the industry will be more invested in standing with the writers that they trust than the management they don’t know.”

What does solidarity look like?

The Freelance Solidarity Project turns one year old this month. In this time, they’ve elected an Organizing Committee and grown to 170 members. Throughout 2020, they aim to establish a presence on college campuses, devote more attention to audio and visual digital media workers, and train more members in legal grievance procedures for when publications pay them late or not at all. 

The Project’s goals are somehow both basic and radical—minor improvements to things like pay rates could eventually require massive restructuring of the entire industry. Freelancers demanding things like pay floors and transparency puts a spotlight on the unsustainability of current funding models in the industry. 

“We’ll need a wholesale re-envisioning of how journalism is produced,” Nicole Cohen said. Otherwise, “raising freelancers rates through collective action won’t make a big difference in the overall picture.” 

The goal of solidarity, however, is the one that’s hardest to measure. Though many freelancers were already accustomed to working remotely, social distancing has removed what was, for many, a rare chance to connect with each other in person. Having a physical place to meet had been a welcome benefit of the union.

“The first immediate gain that’s been very obvious for everyone who’s joined is breaking that sense of isolation,” Clio Chang told me.

Haley Mlotek agreed: “Just being in a room together is something that is skipped over in organizing: how crucial it is to just have a shared, common space.” 

Now, those monthly meetings have to be held over Zoom. Coinciding with the pandemic, the union launched a Discord channel for members as another avenue for connection. The Organizing Committee, all of whom are volunteers, have also spent time locating mutual aid networks for members that need material support. They’ve held webinars to teach freelancers how to apply for their unemployment benefits. 

Mlotek doesn’t think adapting to more virtual tools will inherently be detrimental to organizing. “[Remote organizing] is practically different but relies on the same emotional fortitude,” as in-person organizing, she said.

 “The challenge for remote organizing isn’t the lack of physical proximity—sitting at a desk doesn’t automatically make anyone more than colleagues. The challenge is always to make an effort for meaningful connections.”

 Given the strong potential for burnout with any kind of organizing and the precarity of many freelancers’ lives, emotional, and mental fortitude has taken on a new urgency in the midst of the pandemic. One way the Project aims to address this is with a new political education working group where members read books, watch movies, and discuss them together (over Zoom, of course). 

“It’s something we do for fun but fun is also a mental health imperative. It’s a way to talk to each other and share our thoughts and feelings in a way that isn’t so tied up around literal organizing,” Mlotek said. 

This connection between the union’s sense of interpersonal community and political action is intrinsic to the union’s goals. Brendan O’Connor, a freelance journalist and Community Co-chair, believes that gains for freelancers at work will only be reforms until there is radical political change in other arenas, like winning universal healthcare, parental leave, and rent control. 

“If the answer to how we make freelancing better is stuff like Medicare For All, then we have to be part of the fight for Medicare For All. A way for us to do that is through our union,” said O’Connor. I don’t know that there is anything in the middle distance that’s going to make very much of a difference. I think we’ve gotta go big.” 

Before the pandemic, O’Connor already planned to prioritize developing Project members as political actors and organizers. The union was (and still is) working to make personal contacts with other unions in various industries. They created a legislative working group that devotes time to campaigns for sick leave and unemployment for gig workers, as well as expanding the Freelance Isn’t Free Act. 

“That was a huge part of our organizing but now it has really stepped up,” during the pandemic, said Mlotek. 

Having these more measurable goals might help the Project be more sustainable. But members continually circle back to a foundational question: do we want to make freelancing sustainable, or do we want to abolish it? The Project doesn’t really have an answer. All similar conversations bring them back to the same conclusion:

“We’re often having these conversations about our work when in fact we’re talking about a completely unstable and chaotic environment that we live in overall. In many ways, the industry that we work in is just a microcosm of protections we don’t have in the greater world and culture we come from,” Mlotek explained. 

In many ways, the industry that we work in is just a microcosm of protections we don’t have in the greater world and culture we come from,” Mlotek explained.

As this already tumultuous industry further contracts during the global pandemic, freelance media workers are facing unprecedented precarity. But union organizing has shifted how they understand their working experiences, not as disconnected and individual, but structural. It’s enabled them to identify not just with each other, but with workers throughout the gig economy and beyond it. This is a radical shift from the history of the industry. In the face of manufactured, oppressive austerity and the opportunity to revive the labor movement, these kinds of relationships are more important than ever.

 “It’s not about just our members or just our union,” Mlotek told me. “This is an issue facing the entire labor movement and we see our work as being directly tied to all workers in all industries.”

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