Sunday, January 22, 2006

A Little Insight Before Election Day

If anyone is thinking of voting Liberal tomorrow, especially if you live in the North Centre riding in London, Ontario, you should be aware of an experience I had with our Labour Minister. Joe Fontana has represented London North Centre in the Liberal government and was Labour Minister. He was the Labour Minister who called the two sides together in the final week of the CBC Lockout. Fontana stated publicly that he was going to lock the two parties in his office until they came to an agreement, or something to that effect. At the time he said that, I sent him an e-mail. I felt the union’s (the CMG’s) issues were not my issues. I had learned on the picket line that many others had strong issues, but the CMG was not addressing them. I thought this not only might interest him, but might assist him in bringing the two sides together. As we all know, the two sides came to an agreement just in time to get the NHL season started (what a great coincidence!) and that agreement was ratified on October 7th. All of that is old news, but this is where is gets downright funny and I am offering a word to the wise about voting for Fontana and his party.

On December 7th, more than two months after my e-mail to Fontana and exactly two months following ratification, I received a reply from the Labour Minister. It was not one of those automated replies that goes to every address from which he receives an e-mail. It was written to me about the CBC Lockout. But I have to question if Mr. Fontana can read. I was not some citizen who wanted my CBC back. I told him that I worked there. I told him how, to many employees, the issues differed from ones the CMG was emphasizing.
The following is Fontana’s December 7th reply:

Thank you for your Internet message concerning the recent work stoppage affecting the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and the Canadian Media Guild. I appreciate your taking the time to write and welcome the opportunity to respond.
You may be aware that I met with representatives of the employer and the union on September 26, 2005. Mediation talks resumed immediately and continued in my offices until a memorandum of settlement was concluded on October 2, 2005. The settlement was ratified by the union membership on October 9, 2005, and employees began returning to work on October 11, 2005.
While this was a lengthy and difficult dispute, I am very pleased that we were able to assist the parties in renewing their collective agreement and that normal broadcast programming at CBC radio and television has been restored.
Thank you again for writing and for informing me of your concerns with respect to this dispute.
Sincerely, The Honourable Joe Fontana, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Labour and Housing


“You may be aware”, he says about the agreement and return to work. No, really Mr. Fontana? I was on the picket like, I was locked out of my work, and I cared enough to get involved in the issues, but I didn’t know it had been settled! (Pardon the sarcasm Mr. Labour Minister.) Then, he actually takes some of the credit for the so-called resolution. Gee thanks, Joe. Great job.

This is a fine example of the competence of a Liberal government. Frightening.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

The Opportunity the Canadian Media Guild Missed

Freelance, flexible, casual, precarious, vulnerable are just some of the adjectives used to describe the fastest-growing sector of the workforce. I’m not referring only to my campaign for freelancers’ rights at CBC. This changing nature of the labour force has been a hot topic around the world in all sectors of the labour market for at least the last five years. Government bodies, academic institutions, labour groups, and social reform organizations around the world have attempted to tackle the issue of the “casualization” of work and career as we know it. The Law Commission of Canada and York University are just two of the Canadian organizations that have studied this trend. Conferences have been held, academic papers written and recommendations outlined. Also addressing this timely issue are media associations and women’s groups. The media and female workers are among the hardest hit by the move towards precarious work.
Knowledge of labour trends should be high on the agenda of unions. However, the Canadian Media Guild seems to have completely missed the wealth of information in the public domain on this topic.
They CMG proclaimed a great victory after the 8-week lockout by CBC. Their spokespeople profoundly declared it a victory for the labour movement as a whole. “We won”, they roared again and again. Some CBC workers lost more than they won and probably more than they would have without union representation.
In reality, the CMG missed the boat entirely. They had in their grasp a real opportunity to make labour relations history. But, they didn’t even know what the hottest topic in their profession is.
CBC Management gave them a big clue when they said they wanted a “more flexible workforce”. The CMG didn’t take the hint. They could have analyzed which members were most “flexible” and see what they could gain for them. What CBC appeared to be saying is that they want more casual, temporary and freelance workers.
Under the law a freelancer, who signs a contract, is a contract employee. However, the CMG has created a special classification called “contract employee”. This group has infinitely more rights and privileges than a freelancer, under the CMG’s unique definitions. However, which group did they try to limit? Contract employees. Knowing that this will simply drive CBC to use increased numbers of more vulnerable groups of workers, did the CMG attempt to negotiate more rights for these groups? No. They did not even give freelancers representation at the main bargaining table. The CMG relegated freelance issues to a sub-committee with one representative from each party. Our one representative missed a golden opportunity.
Temps were represented at the main table. However, although the CMG says the word “casual” does not exist in their agreement with CBC, I see more temporary employees being used as casuals as each day goes by.
The CMG is one of the few Canadian unions to have members of the precarious workforce in their membership. Notice I did not say to “represent” members of the precarious workforce. They do not represent us, they simply take our dues. I am sickened every time I see what has come off my cheque for them.
A 2001 study by the Ontario Federation of Labour said that unions can “make a big difference to precarious workers”. This study, now more than 4 years old, describes freelancers as “the most precarious in the workforce” and concludes that a large proportion of them earn low wages. It says that many really work for only one company, therefore are not true freelancers. There are many of those situations at CBC. The report is accusing in saying “independent contractor status may be little more than a device used by employers to reduce payroll costs”. The CMG assumes, without consulting their members, that everyone wants permanent employment status. They have no interest in freelancers-by-choice, therefore no interest in our issues. They are very interested in our dues, however.
The OFL study concludes that very few of these workers are unionized. It sites ACTRA as one of the few exceptions.
Monash University in Australia produced a similar study this year. It, astutely, deduces that these workers present a challenge for unions. If only the CMG had been so astute.
The European Federation of Journalists held a conference on this subject in 2003 and recommended that freelancers should all have the privilege of union representation (hopefully not by the CMG). They concluded that these unions should form their own “groups” to purchase group benefit plans (similar to what ACTRA Fraternal has done). They also recommended that these unions should lobby government to make benefits such as unemployment insurance available to precarious workers and to create social programs for vulnerable workers that cover the things for which traditional workers depend on their employer. This respected organization said, “The challenge of a freelance future is a test for journalists’ unions in Europe and around the world.” The CMG failed the test.
The CMG appears to know they messed up. But, they are too gutless to back track by trying to help these precarious, vulnerable and talented contributors to CBC’s programming. Instead, the only backtracking they are doing involves covering their own asses.
If you look at the new information posted on the freelance page at http://www.cmg.ca/ they are attempting to put a good spin on a bad agreement. For example, read the new copyright options for freelancers on the website in comparison to the wording in the collective agreement. Sins of omission make it sound like they might have done a tiny bit in our favour. Sorry to disappoint you, but they didn’t.
Author Daniel Pink wrote two best-selling books on this subject in the last three years. Free Agent Nation and A Whole New Mind address the new mindset workers must have to survive in this environment. The CMG remains in a 1960s mind-set. Pink, like anyone else who has studied this, says the “job for life” mentality is a thing of the past. Renowned demographer Harry Dent spent a whole chapter on this subject in his blockbuster book The Next Great Bubble Boom. “Microbusinesses” is the term Dent uses for people whose employer’s call them self employed, although they are a one-man operation. That definition lets the employer off the hook when it comes to owing the person anything, even basic human rights. Obviously no one at the CMG reads much.
“Freelancers are a funny bunch”, the University of British Columbia Journalism Review stated in an article several years ago. “They shun office politics, and an assured weekly paycheck, choosing instead insecure remuneration for their words.” The article goes on to say, “they listen to the beat of their own drum and take pride in being independent and free.” I can’t deny that. Freelancers do like “flexibility”, which was precisely what CBC said they wanted. The UBC article goes on to tell the sad tale of average freelance incomes in Canada. And those gloomy figures are before subtracting health care coverage, pension benefits and the cost of buying all your own work equipment, as well of lack of sick leave and vacation. As much as freelancers like flexibility, and the smart ones understand there are trade-offs to get it, freelancers get sick too. Freelancers need income in retirement too. The bottom line is that freelancers deserve basic human rights and appropriate pay for work done and expenses incurred. If CBC wants flexibility, it looks to me that a freelancer treated with basic decency and CBC are the best match. The CMG isn’t capable of that kind of analytical and productive thinking. Freelancers want to be freelancers, but they don’t want a union to make their conditions worse than the employer would.
Vulnerable and precarious workers deserve representation as the various reports and books have concluded. So where do we go to find it? The CEP, former union of CBC’s technicians, has started “The Canadian Freelance Union”. I have requested information from them three times and received no reply. Are all unions useless or have I just run into a bad batch? Are these the kind of people we need representing us? Being that anyone who manages to keep a freelance career going for any length of time has to be fairly savvy and good at his trade, I say we’d do better on our own.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Some Things Really Are Amazing

Someone calling him or herself “Amazing” has posted a couple of comments on this blog to which we would like to respond. Firstly "Amazing", I’d like you to tell me where I said that I represent all freelancers. I didn’t. The opinions and ideas expressed here represent some freelancers. The number of other blogs that have expressed similar views supports our ideas.

Mudslinging and name calling isn’t my style. Constructive criticism with facts, that may promote change, I like. If you would comment with your facts that refute the facts, opinions and arguments that have been put forth on this blog, we would welcome your input. And, that goes for anyone else with facts, ideas or opinions on either side of this issue. If that's you, please comment on the blog or e-mail us directly at CBCFreelancer@aol.com. (Any comments that have been deleted from this blog were spam.)

A word of advice to "Amazing". Just being pro-union doesn't mean you are anything more than a follower. Having ideas of one's own, sometimes creates change.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Solidarity Forever -- Not for Me

Some of the people who have e-mailed me after reading this blog have said I sounded “angry”. I’m a lousy blogger because I haven’t posted in nearly 2 weeks, but that’s not because of anger. It’s because, now that we’re back at work there’s not a lot of time for posting blogs. And that’s a shame because the battle is far from over.

I’m am angry. The people who observed that were right. I’m still angry. Today I did a Google blog search with the keywords “CBC freelancer”. Of course, some of the results the search returned were from this site. But the amount of other good, strong and heartfelt information was staggering. We can only hope the Canadian Media Guild and CBC management read the blogs.

CBC and the CMG have a problem. It's that freelancers work hard and belong to this union too. And we're fed up. Unfortunately, the CMG is just waking up about it. I don’t think the CBC even knows about it. As we start our fourth week back in the building nothing appears to have changed in management’s pure ignorance of the major lockout issues or, specifically, freelancing.

Some people believe that the bigger and more powerful organizations always win against the little guy. I believe that is often true, but not always. Probably more often, because those organizations are so successful at intimidating the little guy. The environment of fear that exists among workers at CBC is a fine example. Of the freelancers who have contacted me as a result of this blog, less than 5 used their real name in contacting me. Even they requested that their name not be associated with their thoughts and input. I have honoured their wishes. The remainder have used pseudonyms but, in some cases, given away a lot about themselves.

I believe that a few “little people”, even the most vulnerable ones, can make change against big organizations with more power and lots of money.

The CMG chanted a lot about "solidarity forever". I have laboured in solidarity with my co-workers for many years. That won't change. I still have fond feelings for them because they treat me well and they’re great people. Like many CBC workers, I remain loyal to the CBC as an institution in whose purpose and mandate I believe strongly. I enjoy being part of, what will hopefully remain, the finest quality broadcasting in Canada.

But solidarity with a union that completely failed, neglected and even misled an important group of its members? Not me. I walked the line because I needed the money, to support my co-workers and to support public broadcasting. One of the best parts of the experience was having the time to get to know some co-workers better. But, I now feel almost ashamed and embarrassed to have pounded the pavement appearing to support a union that failed so miserably at supporting its membership.

Like most people who are drawn to journalism. I am a person of strong principles. I react when I uncover wrong-doing. The way in which the CMG failed us does not effect only freelancers. It effects the very people they professed to be protecting. By demanding a ceiling on the number of contract employees, they opened the flood gates for CBC to hire more freelancers. These new hires are more likely to be forced freelancers, instead of freelancers-by-choice. And, thanks to the CMG’s agreement with CBC on standard form contracts, even the freelancers-by-choice have no choice about anything. Our rights must have been one of those “throw-aways” negotiators speak of. They threw us to the wolves in favour of something that would, no doubt, benefit the CMG more than it’s members.

The CMG set out to limit the CBC’s wish for “a more flexible workforce” and ended up opening the door for more of the most vulnerable workers to be created. And the CMG took 17 months to do this, while representing our needs. Freelancers are not the only losers. The CMG lost on behalf of all of us and the future of the CBC.

I will remain in solidarity with those who do the right thing and are honest about what they are paid to do.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Why CBC Freelancers Are Outraged

I once heard documentary producer Michael Moore interviewed and he was asked why he felt so passionately about the issues he takes on. He said he had always felt strongly about right and wrong. Even as a kid, he said, if there wasn’t enough chocolate milk for everybody in the school cafeteria, he was the one to speak up. He wanted those in charge to know it was wrong.

I identified with Moore because I’ve always been the same way. Some think it’s just complaining. I prefer to see it as holding the people who affect our lives accountable.

That’s why I’ve talked to and e-mailed other CBC freelancers since the CMG claimed great victory with their new collective agreement.

My unscientific poll produced common themes, and some interesting thoughts. It included input from both forced freelancers and freelancers-by-choice. The new agreement may have dealt with some of the problems of the forced freelancer, but even they are cautious. It may improve their chances of becoming a temporary employee. But, just as no one should be forced to be a freelancer to get work, a freelancer-by-choice should not be forced to become an employee just to keep work. So, that group is unsure if it did anything at all for them.

The following are the major reasons that many freelancers voted NO for the new collective agreement and, even those who voted YES, are still grappling with their choice.

1) On October 12th, freelancers (including some very long-service ones) watched their co-workers (including casuals with comparatively limited service) get a $1,000 signing bonus. In the near future, they will see them get a retroactivity payment. With the exception of one classification of freelancers, the rest will get nothing. That one classification will get half the signing bonus and no retroactivity. This, in spite of the fact that CMG twice published (once in a newsletter and much later on their website) that every member would get it. “I think everyone who was eligible to vote should get it”, one respondent said. “Another kick in the teeth”, a long-service freelancer called it. Another described it as “Terribly sad”.

2) The agreement eliminated the only classification of freelancer that was entitled to money in lieu of benefits. However, it retained the freelance classification that has the least rights, has no standard pay scales and to whom the standard contract gives virtually no rights. This opens the door for more abuse than a higher number of contract employees would have. Contract employees get benefits or money in lieu of. Yet the number of contract employees was the central issue of the dispute. The agreement does not stipulate what the eliminated classification is to be replaced with. “I wish I had never known what I know now”, one freelancer who enjoyed her work before the lockout said.

3) For roles performed by many freelancers, the Collective Agreement says simply that freelancers will not be paid less than a staff person doing a similar job. But, even if the corporation complies with this clause, it means that most freelancers are still paid less because they pay their own overhead. There is no provision for this in the agreement, so there is no actual salary scale for freelancers. One respondent said, “Imagine if management said to employees that they now have to bring in their own stationary, computers, printers, ink cartridges, use their own cell phones, save for their own pension, pay for their own health care and pay the premiums on their own government benefits? The CMG would go nuts!” As a result of this discrepancy, even if management complies with the Collective Agreement, freelancers are automatically paid 20% to 45% less than their staff counterparts.

4) The CMG has allowed the corporation to create and use standard freelance contracts in which most rights are in favour of the corporation. For example, although they use ambiguous wording, they can cancel the services with no notice, no payment in lieu of notice, and non-payment for work already performed. “I read that clause in several contracts I signed”, one respondent said. “Then I realized what it meant. They try to trick you. I hoped the union would address these contracts this time”.

5) The new agreement has new copyright provisions for one type of freelancer. “They seem absurd”, said one respondent who works as both a freelancer and a casual. The new clauses are ambiguous and, in both cases, CBC owns copyright, with different provisions for re-use by the author. “Either you own copyright or you don’t”, this respondent said. Most felt the copyright issues should be straightforward and more negotiable.

6) The article dealing with freelance contracts in the Collective Agreement states simply that the freelancer will have a signed contract before work begins. “How fair is that?”, a freelancer of nearly 20 years said. “Before” could mean one minute or one month. “How do you negotiate the terms under those circumstances?” Too often, this results in freelancers starting work before the corporation accepts their terms because they don't want to turn down the work -- only to find out that the corporation refuses to accept their terms.

7) Several respondents said that they think “the fight for better conditions in the 2009 agreement starts now”. Very true, but that will be an uphill battle. The new agreement has a provision for a freelance committee. However, it says this committee will meet just three times a year. They have a lot of things to accomplish in three meetings a year.

8) One of the oddest responses was that some freelancers are still, after many years of service, required to enter the building as visitors. “I’m not a security risk”, one said.

During the lockout, Michael Moore was quoted as saying that CBC was “operating like an American corporation”. American author Barbara Ehrenreich spoke to CNN recently, about her new book “Bait and Switch”. She is also the author of “Nickel and Dimed”. Ehrenreich told CNN the new corporate trend is for top executives to look good by saving money on such things as employee benefits, severance pay and other costs that workers used to take for granted. She said that white collar workers have not historically been accustomed to grouping together to stand up for their rights. The CMG is a predominantly white-collar union and, it appears that we have to learn to do that. Nobody else is going to do it for us.

Welcome to the world of freelancing at CBC with CMG to protect your rights.

Friday, October 14, 2005

Freelance Watchdog Responds

Someone using the alias “Voltaire” has made three comments on this bog and we would like to respond. We know who you are Voltaire. Your last comment screamed loud and clear of words that we, and most CMG-member freelancers, have heard before. But, as usual, you didn’t get it. And, as you often do, you argued back about topics that hadn’t been mentioned.

Don’t worry, we respect your wish for anonymity. Bloggers know that we’re not just talking amongst ourselves. After all, this is the world wide web.

We have to correct Voltaire on his first point. No one “complained” about freelancers not receiving information from the CMG. We stated a fact -- that they didn’t. Voltaire suggested that they should just ask. Is he suggesting freelancers call the CMG office every day, or even every week, to ask if there’s anything they should know? Most of us are busy working hard for CBC. There are so many things that maybe they should know, at any given time. There are elections of officials (or so we're told), negotiation updates, strike votes, and ratification votes. The recent negotiations went on for nearly a year and a half. How does one know when to call? We all belong to other professional and recreational organizations and receive their group e-mails regularly. With today’s technology, it just takes the push of a button to reach all freelancers.

Voltaire said these people should have gotten information at picket headquarters or on the many websites that were created. If they work outside of, or only occasionally at, a CBC site, and thought freelancers were not eligible to picket, what would they be doing at picket headquarters? They’d only know about the lockout from listening to the news. And, how would they know about the “many (newly created) websites”? (Besides, I don’t recall seeing any of these sites talk about the minimum work requirements for eligibility.)

Voltaire said that no one should work without a contract. Pardon me, but I don’t remember seeing anyone raise that issue on this blog. I also don’t know any freelancer who is dumb enough to do so. And thanks so much for the definition of contract. I wasn’t aware anyone had expressed confusion over what a contract is. Voltaire’s response is typical union rhetoric. Not very sophisticated advice, but it’s a lot easier than negotiating conditions under which a freelancer can get a fair contract.

If, as Voltaire suggests, “making change from the inside” is the best way, why have freelance conditions at the CBC gone downhill since the creation of the “Freelance Branch”?. We have a whole “Branch” devoted to us. Other groups, that have their own set of problems, don’t get a “Branch”. Thanks to the new agreement, it will be 2009 before real change can take place. The most talented freelancers may have been driven out of CBC by then.

Again, we must correct Voltaire, we have not taken “pot shots” at anyone. And the accusation is rather amusing. It was Voltaire, in a comment following an earlier post, who outright insulted Richard Stursburg. It was no little pot shot. This blog has raised a collection of unresolved freelance issues. And raised some questions. Anything that has been stated about anyone by name, is fact. Why is CBC upper management fair game for mud-slinging and personal insults, but the CMG is not even subject to question? Remember, Voltaire, that someone on either side of a battle can be right or wrong at least once.

Although Voltaire notes that the word casual does not exist in a collective agreement, that makes it ever more interesting how many of them CBC has created under CMG’s jurisdiction.

Keep the comments coming Voltaire. You are helping us to prove our point. If you can dispute, with reasonable facts, the issues and questions, then I also welcome your comments.

As always, freelancers who have not done so already, are welcome to raise their issues at CBCFreelancer@aol.com.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Underclass of the Canadian Media Guild

A funny thing happened at the ratification meeting in Toronto. A permanent employee said, “I don’t know why we’ve been out on the street for a bunch of freelancers.” Actually, I don’t know why I’ve been paying union dues and denied my work for permanent employees. This person’s misinterpretation was probably due to the fact that many, many of the questions raised at the meeting were about freelance and other non-permanent issues.

The new agreement has made it clear that either the CBC or the CMG doesn’t want freelancers. You have to suspect it’s the CMG, since the CBC wanted “flexibility”. The CMG has put so much effort into protecting forced freelancers that they forgot some people are freelancers-by-choice. We agree that no one should be forced to accept freelance status just to get work. But the CMG Freelance Branch has a broader obligation. The union representation of freelancers-by-choice needs to include fair contracts that have benefits for both sides, a fair negotiation process, adequate time to negotiate a contract, and an understanding by both the CMG and CBC staff of the way in which freelancers are compensated to cover their overhead as well as a rate of pay that equals staff members.

Another area in which they have failed this group of members is in informing them of union activity. Freelancers work variable hours, are often self-assigned and often work off-site rather than in a CBC office. No freelancer I know was notified of the strike vote in July. Many were not aware that they were even eligible to vote. I’m certain that there was a significant number of freelancers who did not picket because they were not aware of eligibility for lockout pay. I know a few who found out late in the lockout that they were eligible and began to picket.

More than 2000 members did not vote in the ratification process. No doubt, some just couldn’t make it. Others may have had other jobs during the lockout. But, how many were freelancers who didn’t know they could vote? How many were members who just didn’t care enough to come out and vote? And, how many were members who bought into the spin the CMG put on from the outset – that it was a done deal.

The biggest insult to freelancers in the new Collective Agreement, and possibly the most hap-hazard use of language, comes in the “Definition of Terms”. “Employee” is defined as “any person hired by the Corporation in any classification of this Collective Agreement and any other classification created by the Corporation that would fall within this bargaining unit. The term employee does not include freelancers.” CMG President Lise Lareau was not truthful about the presence of this definition when she took questions following her “victory speech”. However, under the laws of Canada, freelancers are employees. What someone at the bargaining table was trying to accomplish with this degrading new addition to the agreement is unclear. Many freelancers make contributions that equal or exceed that of staff contributions to programming. Upon reading that I was not considered an employee by the CBC or the CMG, I immediately looked at the article about union dues. It says the corporation will collect them from every employee. Does that means freelancers don’t have to pay them? It would be an interesting challenge.

What has particularly saddened me is the number of people I encountered on the picket line and to whom I listened at the ratification meetings, who don’t know exactly what their status is. I met high-profile commentators who thought they were freelancers because the re-negotiate a contract every year. It turned out they are contract employees. I met temporary, part-time and casual staff who thought they were freelancers and vice versa. One sad case thought she was a contract employee because she signed a contract. Not a difficult mistake to make, but one with big consequences. As a contract employee she would have medical benefits. It turned out the poor girl was a freelancer and had nothing but the paltry sum she had been paid. The CMG and the CBC has to cease blurring the lines between classifications with the simplistic names they give the vastly different classifications and contract types.

This emphasizes that every member should have been given adequate time to read the agreement before voting. And everyone should have been advised of their classification, in CMG language, before reading. It’s been a week since this agreement, which the CMG proclaimed a great victory, was ratified. I wonder how many people still aren’t clear on what they are and to what they are entitled. I wonder how many would be happy with it if they knew.