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.


Blogger Voltaire said...

It constantly amazes me that there are people who complain about not getting information, but who never bother to ask.

I don't know why anyone would work without a contract. The contract sets out the terms of your engagement, how and when you'll be paid, and what the rights and obligations are on both sides.

As for getting information about the strike vote, picketing and ratification process, all anyone ever has to do is *ask*. If anyone wasn't sure whether they were eligible to picket, or vote, they should ask. There were how many websites? how many newsletters? how many picket headquarters? You can't complain about not receiving information you didn't make any effort to look for.

Since its creation a number of years ago, I know that the Guild's Freelance Branch has had difficulty finding volunteers who will work on its executive. There has never been a contested election in the history of the branch. In the next round of elections, I expect to see a whole bunch of people running for positions, either on the national branch executive or for their local executive, or volunteering to serve on the bargaining committee.

What would be useful would be for someone to say that they're planning to make change from the inside. Stand for election; volunteer for a bargaining committee; be involved in the process. Don't take pot shots at people who have given considerable amounts of time and effort just because you're not satisfied with the end result.

14/10/05 11:20  

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