[posted by Alice]
When I get tired of working at home, I take my computer to a library or coffeehouse, like other freelancers do. On Saturday morning I went to Starbucks. Usually, when I sign on to the wi-fi, I ignore the Digital Network page that comes up after I accept their terms of service, but yesterday one of the offerings caught my eye. It was a mediabistro article called “7 Things They Don’t Tell You About Freelancing: Here’s what we wish they taught us in J-school.”
It’s not hard to understand why the Starbucks Network would feature an article about freelancers (lots of us “work” there). But the reason I actually clicked on that link was because just last week I attended the Delegate Assembly of the National Writers Union, the only labor union that represents freelance writers, and I was more focused on freelancers’ issues than usual. Even after I learned that the article was originally posted on August 8, 2011, I continued reading because blogger Alisha Tillery gives a soberingly accurate description of the life of a freelance writer. She says that freelancing is a full-time job, yet you might also need to have a “real” job to sustain yourself; you still have a boss (your editor) but you may have to chase checks in order to get paid; and so on. Tillery also gives information about using the Writer’s Market, suggests sites where freelancers can find job postings, and says that the Freelancers Union might be able to help with late payment issues and other problems.
As a newly energized NWU member, I asked myself why she didn’t also include the National Writers Union in her list of connections and resources. There are advantages to the fact that the NWU represents only writers and is an authentic trade union, part of the AFL-CIO, with the attention to workers rights this implies. (Freelancers Union, by comparison, is an unaffiliated organization that deals with freelancers in arts, design and entertainment; media and advertising; financial services; nonprofit; technology; domestic child care; skilled computer use; and traditional or alternative health care.) And though it’s true that if you live in New York City, membership in the Freelancers Union can get you health insurance, the same is true of the NWU. And the NWU has been around longer than the Freelancers Union. (The National Writers Union was formed as a local of the United Autoworkers Union in 1981, and the Freelancers Union was founded by the nonprofit Working Today in 2001.)
So why didn’t the NWU get a nod when Ms. Tillery talked about resources for freelance writers? Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing that she talked about any sort of unionizing efforts at all. Because it’s true that writers tend to resist any attempt to organize them, and some are too individualistic to imagine that they could be comfortable in any sort of union, especially if they are already doing well. Yet as newspapers close and new technology creates as many challenges as opportunities, it is obvious to me that unions for writers have a crucial role to play. Ursula Le Guin, the legendary science fiction writer and NWU member, said it very well in her solidarity message to our Delegate Assembly:
Dear Sisters and Brothers: We know that the mega-corporations think they own and control publishing. And we know that organizing writers is like herding cats. So — let’s imagine a huge herd of lean, hungry, highly organized cats coming at those fat-cat corporations, and clawing the stuffing out of them. I can’t wait.
Whenever I sit alone writing, I’m aware that we freelancers need solitary time to do our work – at home or in coffeehouses – but we can benefit from the solidarity and collective spirit of a union, as well as the collective power it can give us to deal with all those problems they didn’t tell you about at J-School.