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.

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