“Unions should push for the rights of all workers, including freelancers”

“Unions should push for the rights of all workers, including freelancers”

As insecure, ‘flexible’ jobs continue to replace permanent roles at a breakneck speed, unions are increasingly focused on organising freelance workers.


Since 1945, Ebony Magazine has been a cornerstone of African-American culture. During the 1950s and 19060s when Black people in the United States were fighting for justice and equality, the magazine carved out a rare space in publishing to celebrate the lives and achievements of African-Americans. Some of its most notable issues, like the 1969 Black Jesus cover, sent shockwaves through race-sensitive America.

But in more recent times, the magazine has won notoriety for its mistreatment of its freelancers. In 2018, after a year-long legal battle, the magazine’s owners (Ebony Media Organization and its parent company, the private equity firm Clear View Group) finally agreed to pay over US$80,000 in unpaid fees to its freelance contributors. And behind those independent workers stood a union. “Freelancers are like the fast-food workers of publishing,” says Larry Goldbetter, president of the National Writers Union (NWU), the freelancers’ union representing the Ebony Magazine freelancers. “They are at the bottom of the food chain, and they really benefit from organising collectively.”

Yet it isn’t hard to see where freelancers and unions might clash. Freelancers often see themselves as free-wheeling entrepreneurs, with little need for collective power or forming alliances with employees. On the other hand, some unions have a history of mistrusting freelancers, seeing them as a way for employers to undermine working conditions.

Nevertheless, as insecure, ‘flexible’ jobs in all kinds of industries continue to replace permanent roles at a breakneck speed, unions around the world are increasingly focusing their attention on organising freelance workers. The Freelancing in America 2018 report, for example, shows that the 3.7 million people went freelance between 2014 and 2018. At the same time union numbers are down. In 2017 the unionisation rate in the United States stood at 10.7 per cent, a historical low that is being mirrored across most of the West. The reasons for this vary from region to region, but factors include a fall in employment in sectors and industries with historically strong unions, a reduced awareness of unions amongst younger workers and government hostility to powerful unions.

All of this makes organising new groups of workers more important than ever. And in the Global North, freelancers – which can include self-employed workers in sectors like media, graphic design or programming but also workers in the gig economy – could be a key new demographic for declining unions.

“The interests of all workers, whether they are employees or freelancers, are largely equal,” says Irene van Hest, who represents self-employed workers at the Dutch trade union FNV. “And because the number of freelancers is increasing, the importance of collective representation for them becomes ever greater.”

But why should freelancers join unions in the first place? Don’t they have more in common with entrepreneurs than with workers? Gunter Haake from the self-employed section of the German union ver.di disagrees. “Not all freelancers are very well paid,” he says. “And fundamentally it’s the task of unions to also defend the rights of these types of workers, not only those who happen to be employees.”

Using antitrust laws to hinder collective bargaining

Unions, of course also bring useful services to freelancers. They can arrange things like health insurance, offer legal advice and mediate in disputes. At the same time unions can also influence governments into taking more pro-freelance measures, like giving them access to healthcare and childcare arrangements.

Yet a massive barrier for this work, all across borders, is antitrust law. These laws were originally invented to break up large cartels, where a few big companies might, for example, decide to coordinate and raise their prices above market level. Now, however, these laws are also being used to mount legal attacks against freelancers who decide to engage in collective bargaining.

Companies like Lyft and Uber have been known to attack unionising drivers with antitrust rules. “In the Netherlands regulators do attack freelancers for arranging minimum prices,” says Van Hest. “But they are increasingly showing a willingness to open up collective bargaining to vulnerable groups of freelancers, but that comes with a range of requirements. It’s also not a done deal, and we’re still lobbying in favour of it.”

Across the Atlantic, the NWU faces similar issues. “Right now a big part of what we do is helping freelancers get paid when clients refuse to pay,” says Goldbetter.

“But antitrust law prevents us from engaging in real collective bargaining. We do have some voluntary agreements with publications, and we want to negotiate more. But eventually they could be challenged in court. Hopefully we can then push-back against this misuse of the law. But for the law to be changed you need to go out and do something about it. You need to challenge the bad laws.”

Interestingly in Germany, ver.di has managed to get collective arrangements for freelancers in certain sectors. “If a freelancer, for example, earns 50 per cent or more of their income from one company, we can make a collective agreement for these freelancers,” Haake says. “In the media sector, this percentage is even lowered to one-third of your income. So, for example, most freelancers that work in public radio are covered by these types of arrangements.”

‘Fake’ freelancers and bridging the divide

Another issue is ‘fake’ freelancers. These have various legal names according to the country, but certain employers across a range of industries use freelance contracts to mis-designate regular employees. Which creates an issue for the unions that represent legitimate freelancers.

“There are plenty of real self-employed workers who determine their own work and prices,” says FNV’s Van Hest. “And we need to defend their rights. But at the same time when workers are forced into a freelance contract, we need to defend their position as well, and demand they are given the benefits attached to being an employee.”

Deliveroo, a European meal delivery platform, is one high-profile example of this. Their couriers exert little autonomy over their work and their prices are fixed, yet in many countries they are still forced into freelance contracts. Nevertheless in the Netherlands, FNV has managed to get this overturned in court, a decision which has given these couriers the legal benefits attached to being an employee.

Yet these sorts of cases can make traditional unions wary of freelancers, who are sometimes seen as a kind of trojan horse used by employers to undermine labour rights.

But Haake from ver.di disagrees with this assessment. “We shouldn’t build walls between workers. We should push for the rights of all workers, including the self-employed ones.” Goldbetter agrees. “If we don’t organise freelancers, it will be easier to use them to undermine staff [employees].”

Nevertheless, there are some countries, such as Belgium, in which unions don’t allow freelancers members, and there are also sectoral unions that refuse to open their ranks to the self-employed. At the same time freelancers are often not very motivated to join unions. “This is often a group that is quite young and has little union history,” says Goldbetter. “They also work alone, which isn’t how unions traditionally operate. Nevertheless by organising I think we can overcome that.”

Haake agrees, pointing to a recent campaign ver.di did in Berlin. “We did a campaign there among self-employed teachers and tutors, and we signed up hundreds of new members”, he says. “If we organise, it’s possible to reach freelancers. And if unions want to remain relevant, we need to do it.”

So barriers remain, but unions are pushing forward. “Our future will be a big, uphill battle,” says Goldbetter. “But that doesn’t scare us. We’re currently involved in a big organising campaign. We’re constantly becoming a better union and we are developing young leaders who can push freelancers forward.”