Ten years ago the world of the freelance writer was different than it is today. The internet had already taken off and transformed the way the world consumed media, and much of the damage to the careers of freelance writers was already done. But even over the last decade, we’ve seen those standards fall even further, with little sign that things are turning around.
In 2008 a study of freelance writers showed that the average freelancer earned $44,000 – $50,000 per year, with the top national magazines paying a prestige rate of $2 per word. Today those same magazines pay $1 per word, which has gone from the standard rate in the pre-internet age to the best rate writers can hope for today. The majority of freelance writers today earn less than $20,000 per year. Most writers can’t afford to do the work full time and
have to supplement their incomes with other work.
Over the last several years we have supported the website Who Pays Writers , a clearinghouse of writer-submitted data on rates, rights and response time at hundreds of publications. There are over 3,000 entries in the database, and the average per-word rate is just under 11 cents. The median rate is 61 cents per word. Most of the rates aren’t paid per-word but as flat-fee payments regardless of length. Those payments hover around $500 and below in
most cases – not a rate that any writer can make a living on if they hope to dedicate any serious time and effort into their work.
Meanwhile the people who are working today as staff writers at the same publications that many freelancers work for are seeing their own standards decline. At our last delegates assembly we heard from a member of the Gawker Media union organizing committee, who had just come off of a landmark union victory at that publication. He spoke to us about their hopes for contract negotiations and their desire to organize more shops in the industry. They did secure a contract from Gawker, one that gave them raises in pay and a way to move up the ladder. It also gave them layoff and recall rights, which ended up being fortuitous, because not long after winning their contract Gawker was sued by the billionaire Peter Thiel who was insulted by something they wrote about him. The lawsuit bankrupted the company and shut down one of the largest digital media properties in the world, and has lead to a spasm of more lawsuits against the company, their assets, and most troubling, the writers themselves – including freelancers. But Gawker’s union, the Writers Guild of America East, also were able to build on that success.
The world of media professionals and journalists were anxious about the chaos that surrounded their business. Companies merging, opening and closing on a whim, laying people off left and right. The uncertainty was too much to bear, so a number of publications’ staff writers also formed unions in the wake of Gawker. Vice, Slate, Salon, Huffington Post, The Onion, Thrillist, Think Progress, the LA Times, the New Yorker, and Fast Company just to name a few. This wave hasn’t shown any sign of slowing down. But in many cases it is coming perhaps too late.
Many media companies are preparing to lay off more staff, are being purchased by private equity companies and sold off for parts, and are figuring out how to churn out content with fewer people for less and less money. In some cases the union is negotiating severance packages as quickly as it can settle first contracts.
Staff writers in non-union media companies have a path, however. They know now, for the first time in the digital age, that unionization can help them blunt the force of the corporate onslaught of their livelihoods. And they are moving quickly. Freelance writers, who are experiencing the same onslaught, don’t see the same path for themselves. Every month it seems like a new article is written about the plight of the freelance writer and bemoaning the fact that we don’t have the same opportunity as staff writers to unionize to protect ourselves.
The question for us to ponder is – why don’t these writers see the National Writers Union as that path? It isn’t as simple as they don’t know that we exist. Many articles about the challenge of freelancers unionizing even cite the NWU. It can only be that writers don’t understand the NWU, or that from the outside the NWU doesn’t seem like the kind of organization they are looking for. Since the last DA I have travelled around the country and spoken about the NWU to various groups . I spoke to the leaders of writers groups at the Society of Professional Journalists conference in New Orleans, to journalism grad students at the CUNY School of Journalism, to funders and researchers at the Cornell Worker Institute’s conference on the gig economy, to freelancers in New York City at the Arts and Entertainment Workers Resource Center’s plenary, to business editors and writers at the CUNY J-School conference, to small groups of writers at libraries and union halls in cities from Washington to Arkansas. One thing I am always struck by is how excited people get when they hear about the work we are doing, and about our vision for what the NWU can do to help this movement progress. It isn’t that they didn’t know the NWU existed. My invitation to speak often presupposes that. It’s that they assumed we were dormant, or that we were more like a professional organization, or that we merely provided a very specific service to members. Many times people think of the NWU along the lines of a networking group or an organization that helps members with contract advice, and don’t think of us as a union that could fight alongside of staff writers in the WGAE or the NewsGuild.
In 2008 the NWU, like the world of freelance writers at large, was in a different place than it is today, but not dramatically so. By that year the NWU had already shed the vast majority of it’s 7,000-plus members that it had at its high water mark in 2002 and was down to roughly 1,500 members, still more but not far from the number we have today. The NWU was under an administratorship by the UAW, who was helping to bail the cash-strapped NWU out financially.
While our membership has continued to decline, our budget slashing and belt tightening has made the union more solvent and brought us further from financial calamity. The UAW administratorship is gone. None of the UAW staff who once inspired so much suspicion and ire from NWU members are around anymore. And the number of vice presidents, and members receiving stipends to do union work in general, has fallen to perhaps its lowest number ever as our budget has dramatically shrunk over the last decade. We are a mere skeleton of what this union once was in terms of membership, staff, and resources to bring to bear on behalf of members and writers. Yet we soldier on, trying hard to flex our muscle and be the kind of union freelance writers are looking for in this unique and historically significant moment.
To that end we have started a number of new projects that hopefully will project to writers the possibilities of what a robust freelance writers union can do. We helped the Freelancers Union lobby for and pass the Freelance Isnt Free bill in New York City , a first-in-the-nation statute that gives freelancers protections and awards them double damages from employers who violate them. We have negotiated agreements with three publications – The Nation, In
These Times, and Jacobin – that cover basic standards for freelancers and gives them access to an NWU grievance process. We have formed an Advisory Committee on Bargaining to expand on this work and bring these agreements to more publications. We have increased the number of group non-payment grievances that we have taken on, and more flood in to the offices every week. This project alone could consume the work of a freelance writers union
year-round, so many of us are sitting on delinquent contracts! To that end we are establishing a legal fund to raise money to help pay the costs of these cases that go to court. We continue to work with Who Pays Writers to build the largest database of freelance writing rates in the United States. And we are partnering with other organizations , from the Arts and Entertainment Workers Resource Center to the Writers Guild of America, East to identify new
freelancers and introduce them to the union.
As we look forward to the next three years, the question we should be asking is “what do freelance writers want to see in a union in order to join and get involved?” If we don’t figure this out and remake ourselves to fit that mold, another organization will. Already we see evidence of this happening. Ad-hoc groups and collectives are forming all over the country to address the anxieties and fears of freelance writers and to help marshal some of their strength in dealing with editors and publishers. Some of these groups, hastily initiated on twitter or Facebook or on email listservs, are already at hundreds or over a thousand members, sometimes who pay monthly fees higher than our own. We should work in solidarity with these groups, but we should also figure out how to present ourselves to the universe of freelance writers as a union that is ready, willing, and able to be the kind of union they are looking for, whatever that may be, so that we can consolidate our collective power and use it in the most effective way.
This past year our union lost one of our most prominent members and advocates, the novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. She passed away in January at the age of 88. Though she is gone from this earth, her website remains, and on it she still has a page dedicated to the National Writers Union, where she encourages her fellow writers to join us. She says “Most writers are innately suspicious of joining things, and right to be so. And obviously it’s difficult to get people to act together who mostly work independently at home. But it can be done. I’ve been in the Union a long time now, watched it hit a high point for writers’ rights in the Tasini case, watched it almost come apart over policy arguments and pull itself triumphantly back together. Yes, Virginia, you can herd cats!”
Sister Le Guin is right. We can herd cats. It will be difficult. And for some of us who have been in this union for a long time and have “seen it all,” it will require us to make space for new faces and new ideas, and even try some things we tried before in another age. We will need to let other writers lead us, even if we’ve been leading for many years, even if the writers are much younger than us or have been doing the work for a much shorter time. We need to be OK with the fact that what we will look like in the end may be very different than anything we’ve ever looked like in our nearly 40 year existence, becuase the landscape for writers looks different, too.
Brothers and sisters over the last ten years we have continued to triumphantly pull ourselves back together again. The result of that is a union that is smaller and scrappier than it has ever been. But that small and scrappy union has been punching well above its weight. We have been winning. And winning victories for writers, however great and small, is why members will join with us. We need to show that our organization’s priority is the fight, the good fight, the right fight, the fight against the bosses and the industry that absolutely owes each of us a living for our labor. We need to show it in our words and action, by putting our creative, human, and financial resources towards those fights in a way that shows we are “all in.” That’s what a union does. When we are at our best, that’s what we do, too.
I’ll leave you with these words from Sister Le Guin, on the occasion of her receiving the Distinguished Contribution to American Letters Award at the 2014 National Book Awards. She closed her speech by saying:
“Books, you know, they’re not just commodities. The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art — the art of words.
I have had a long career and a good one. In good company. Now here, at the end of it, I really don’t want to watch American literature get sold down the river. We who live by writing and publishing want — and should demand — our fair share of the proceeds. But the name of our beautiful reward is not profit. It’s name is freedom.”