You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

What Would a Real Freelancer’s Union Look Like?

Spencer Platt/Getty

It’s boom times in digital media: Profit and investment are up, and new companies are aligning with older media behemoths to increase hiring, especially in the field of content creation. For a company that now has television entities behind it, like Vice (with HBO) and Buzzfeed (with NBC Universal), this means more writers and video editors, as well as developers to create new ways to tell stories and advertising departments to sell those stories. Writers who were looking at a dismal job market a few years ago are witnessing renewed interest in their services. 

In response to this prosperity—and sensing that every boom must at some point bust—writers at companies across the country have begun to unionize, attempting to secure their livelihoods and demand fairer wages and better protections across the board. Efforts have focused on evening the wildly disparate pay scale for similar positions, ensuring job security for times when money might not be flowing so freely, and creating a more open line of communication between employees and management. With a unionized bullpen, these media companies will be home to happier, more stable writers, who will help the companies grow while retaining the talent that made them so successful in the first place. Employees at Gawker, Huffington Post, Salon, Guardian US, and Vice have declared their intention to unionize, and are working out collective bargaining agreements with management as we speak.

While this is a nice story, the reality of the publishing business is grittier: The dirty secret of digital media is its contract workers, who produce a massive amount of content—and therefore value—for publications. (Case in point: Your correspondent is a freelance writer himself.) Freelancers, permalancers, and contract writers have always been central to the success of digital media—yet they’ve seen no general improvement in their conditions during profitable times. At least during earlier iterations of the media, when print was the medium of choice, freelancers could count on publications having physical addresses and accounting departments onsite. In the Wild West of digital media, it’s quite common for a publication to fold before honoring all of its payment obligations or just take advantage of freelancers by promising them payment whenever the company becomes profitable. Late paychecks, non-payment, non-compensated expenses, fluctuation of rates, and absent editors are the very bane of the freelancer’s existence, but no amount of shaming or organizing has made media companies more receptive to the idea that freelancers are more than exploitable workhorses who create content. 

The justifications for this continued state of affairs are myriad; that freelance content producers have more freedom is a major rationalization. Freelance writers have the freedom to move on from projects if they’re not paying well enough or if they’re too much of a hassle, the argument goes; and besides, if they want jobs, they’re filling out their clips and padding their resumes before they get scooped up by somewhere else. And: freelance writing looks like a lot of fun. These writers can live anywhere, they can wake up whenever, they can write about what they want! I bet they don’t even put on pants before the PM! 

All of these are, in some way, true. And for the freelance writers who can make it work, it’s probably a great way to live. But for the rest it isn’t a sustainable existence: Rent in the media markets where most freelancers have to live is insanely high, while expenses like healthcare and food can quickly leave even the most diligent playing catch-up. And of course there’s the dreaded W-9 tax form, which leaves a freelancer to deal with his entire tax burden at the end of the year.

The truth of the matter is that freelancers were never really meant to live entirely off of their earnings. Freelance writing was always viewed as either a gateway to a career, a side gig, or the domain of the wealthy. It has never been allowed to mature into an actual career, and that’s why working conditions are as bad as they are today. And now, with money flowing into digital media, is the time for that to change.

There are two existing organizations that purport to represent the needs of freelance writers in the United States. One, the Freelancer’s Union—which very publicly touts the benefits of solidarity among contract laborers—is not an actual union, and thus can’t collectively bargain for any of its members. (In fact: Their own blog doesn’t pay for content.) But its lobbying—for more timely and consistent payment for writers at the state and city government level, as well as access to health care—has been somewhat effective, and its support of a New York law that would make sure freelancers are paid for their work is a step in the right direction. 

The other organization, the National Writers Union, was founded as a true union for freelance writers; for decades it has sued companies on behalf of unpaid freelancers and provided invaluable support to its precarious membership. But budget cuts in 2015 and a large debt has crippled the organization, leaving it without much of a public presence. As writer Michelle Chen points out at The Nation, archaic anti-trust laws have long hampered the organization, as the government treats “freelance organizing as they do racketeering operations.”

Because of their limitations, both the Freelancers Union and the National Writers Union fall far short of their goal of improving freelance working conditions at media companies. Despite their best efforts, things seem to be getting even worse. A 2015 survey of freelance writers found that 84 percent of writers were subsidizing their own work out-of-pocket, paying some of reporting costs themselves, while 55 percent of writers did not have any expenses covered while reporting for a media outlet. An astounding 14 percent had received “no compensation at all” for individual pieces they had written. Obviously, this is a workforce in distress. And yet no one seems to have ridden to the rescue. An effort like Contently, a site that makes it easier for freelancers to find work and guarantees payment (by paying for the work itself and sorting it out with the contractor themselves), is a boon for writers, but not exactly an organizing force. Contently and the Freelancers Union boost support and advocacy, but still operate under the central tenets of the tech world, which privileges individual agency over collective action. 

The time is right for a major collective effort by freelance writers to capitalize on the success of the industry and find a way to improve their working conditions. For lack of a better term, let’s call this effort a union. It may come to resemble a cooperative, or even a guild, but its goals should be to raise industry standards through coordinated effort. To that end, here are tools a real freelance writers union could employ as it attempts to better the lives of its members: 

  1. A standard freelancer contract: Taking a cue from the Writer’s Guild of America’s work with screenwriters, freelance writers could rally around a standard, uniform contract that guarantees prompt payment, compensated expenses, and reasonable hours. A standard contract would give them something tangible to rely on, and editors would be familiar with its requirements.
  2. Allying with the existing union membership at media companies: A standard freelancer contract is useless if no one actually uses it. By forming alliances with existing unionized workplaces and the newly established ones in digital media, masthead workers can insist on only assigning work through the standard freelancer contract. This will allow even non-members to feel the beneficial effects of collective action, as the standard contract becomes standard.
  3. Membership that means something: Right now, the advocacy groups and unions that represent freelance writers have no requirement other than paying dues. (The Freelancers Union does not have a dues requirement.) But that isn’t enough. Hiring a union plumber means you’re getting a quality plumber, and it should be the same for writers. A freelance writers union should have standard requirements, like an editing test, minimum publication history, and community service.
  4. Flexible dues that can create a formidable force: The sink-or-swim nature of freelancing means that making a writer choose between rent and dues would be pointless for a union. Instead, union dues would be calculated as a progressive percentage of earnings. This way, as the union raises wages, it can become stronger and can fight for freelance writers everywhere.
  5. 401(K) and Health Insurance: This comes after the revolution. 

Writers of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains! And your emails to unresponsive finance departments.

Correction: An earlier version of this story implied that membership in the Freelancers Union required dues; it is free to be a member. This article has been updated to reflect the correction.