Social Justice in a Freelance World 3: Organising freelances within journalists' unions

EFJ conference, Brussels, November 1999

Organising freelances within journalists' unions


Italian freelances were seeking to be included within the national collective agreement for journalists while the Danish union has a sophisticated freelance strategy. Freelances in the UK are setting up e-mail networks to strengthen their organisation. But on the issue of whether employers can be members of a trade union, the different unions were deeply divided.


  • EFJ/IFJ member unions should encourage co-operation between freelances and staff journalists, exchanging information about each others' working conditions;

  • EFJ/IFJ member unions should look at formal representational roles for freelances, particularly in larger media organisations, so that their voice can be heard from Day One and not as an afterthought. Staff (representatives) should have training in this; and

  • EFJ/IFJ member unions should offer training courses in negotiation and demanding professional remuneration.

Including freelances in collective bargaining

Simona Fossati, of FNSI and the EFJ Freelance Experts' Group (FREG), explained that, up to now, there had been a single, strong, national collective agreement for all staff journalists in Italy, negotiated between the FNSI and the employers' organisation. After a lot of work, and opposition from the employers, freelances had been included in the new draft of the national agreement that was due to be discussed in November. The main aspects of the draft were:

  • a contract for any contribution that freelance journalists have with any employer;

  • time of payment: within 30 days from delivery;

  • protection of authors' rights;

  • rules on accident insurance and illness;

  • higher rates on Sundays and holidays; and

  • minimum rates.

Valentina Agostinis, FNSI, said that in Italy freelance journalists were about half of the market, according to an FNSI study, and had been part of an Anglo-Saxon type deregulated culture. Freelance journalists had had to fight to convince the union to represent them. Practical initiatives for freelances were important. The Freelance Section of the Lombardian Association of Journalists had just finished a booklet for Lombardia by freelances, a pilot project which should be extended all over Italy. Greece: Athanase Papandropoulos, Union of Periodical Press Journalists, said that journalists in Greece traditionally had professional status similar to doctors and lawyers. Freelance work was now increasing in all sectors with fixed-term and part-time contracts mostly affecting the new, young journalists and women. Antonis Davanellos, Journalists Union of Athens Daily Newspapers said Greece was perhaps the only country in the world where social security depended on membership of a union. Two seminars were planned for 2000, involving all Greek journalists' unions.

The Danish freelance strategy

Karen Bech of the Dansk Journalistforbundet (DJ), outlined the DJ Freelance Strategy. Influencing legislation was an important part, especially with regard to authors' rights, labour and social law and the competition laws. DJ was working together with other groups including actors and computer programmers on issues such as tax, VAT rules and sickness protection. The union was fighting against the tendency for freelances to become small businesses because then they would lose all social benefits. Another part of the freelance strategy implied strengthening the individual. This included provided counselling and legal action, training in bargaining, providing standard contracts, guidelines, information, and establishing work-specific networks. Collective representation included requiring shop stewards to represent freelances as well; collective agreements on wages; collective agreements on (digital) authors' rights and collective management of authors' rights. The DJ had made 19 agreements that covered both staff and freelance journalists. Each member paid 10 EUR to the freelance section and 100 EUR to the union, which included contributions to unemployment benefits. A freelance co-ordinator was paid by the union. An authors' rights fund provided freelances with training courses. The meeting agreed on the need for a union strategy, not only a freelance strategy. Staff should not be allowed to forget that they need freelances. Low pay for freelances threatened the job security of staff journalists. It was important for the steward/works council to have a collective responsibility for both staff and freelances.

Organising via e-mail

Ros Bayley, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) London Freelance Branch, said the best tool for organising freelance members was e-mail. The freelance sector of the NUJ was setting up an electronic database and e-mail networks. E-mail could revolutionise the union allowing a good and quick service to members. But the key remained how to organise freelance journalists. Networking was an important tool and authors' rights was an important subject around which networking could take place. London Freelance Branch was also encouraging discussion groups via e-mail, since most journalists did not want to go to meetings. In the US, photographers had won improvements in their rates through an email list called Editorial Photo (EP). This co-ordinated individual action could be very successful. [EP UK was set up shortly after this conference.] Switzerland: Anne-Regula Keller, Swiss Federation of Journalists, said her union was able to put in place minimum rates for freelances. She also reported that her union published a website and had set up a mailing list for members and an e-mail database geared to freelances. Finland: Ina Ruokolainen reported on the boycott of a computer-magazine house arising from its demand for assignment of all rights in members' work. The freelances, most of whom were not members of the union, started an e-mail discussion list. They ended up deciding on a boycott of the publishing house. Because of the e-mail list, the boycott was quite successful and the freelances and the publishers came to an agreement.

Freelances as employers

Tudor Gates, of the UK Broadcasting, Entertainent, Cinematograph and Theatre Union (BECTU) and its union international MEI, a freelance writer and a producer, said freelances now represented the majority of membership of BECTU, many of them working with the BBC. The British film industry's objective was cheapness and not quality. Some technicians worked for no wages just to gain experience and up-date their skills. Many small producers, who worked as freelances, engaged freelance labour and thereby had a double-function of freelance and employer. Freelancers were often forced to exploit others because they were sub-contractors working on a very small budget. UK: Antoinette Graves, BECTU, said a lot of the independent production companies were to be blamed for not negotiating better rates with the broadcasting companies. The situation of the freelance employer taking on freelance employees was not an acceptable practice, but it happened. France: Martine Rossard, SNJ, said that once union members became employers they should not be allowed to remain in the trade union. Ireland: Ronan Brady said it was important that the editors remained members of the NUJ. Denmark: Jan Winsløw expressed his concern on keeping "employers" in the union. In the Danish Union, employers could not be members. A freelance could distribute work to other freelances as a project manager, but could not hire and fire other members. He said his union would have lost the competition/anti-monopoly ruling over the issue of whether freelances were unionised workers or small businesses, had it had employers among its members. UK: Bernie Corbett explained that in the UK trade unions could not exclude from membership anyone who met the general criteria. The NUJ decided to represent all members in ethical and media freedom issues but nobody in their capacity as an employer. Sweden: Arne König said the Swedish Union of Journalists suffered from employers trying to persuade journalists to leave the union by making them employers/managers. The union offered them "passive membership" to support them in ethical cases. Report by Ros Bayley