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575. Why freelance journalists should join a union

Traditional journalism’s uncertain future was clear to Abigail Higgins from childhood. Her father worked for the Seattle Times and, in the early 1990s, switched from the editorial side of the house to the digital side.

“There were always questions about whether there was going to be layoffs or if the paper would survive at all,” Higgins says. “I knew it was precarious.”

From the time Higgins was ready to start her own career, freelancing seemed a smarter option, as it afforded the ability to live abroad — she spent 10 years in East Africa — while working as a journalist and a researcher for the United Nations. After a while, though, being far from home and feeling “a bit like an interloper” led her to return back to the United States, where she could continue to cover health issues like maternal mortality, authoritarian governments, poverty and inequality, which she’d started doing in Nairobi.

It was upon returning home that she learned of the Freelance Solidarity Project, an organization for which she now serves as co-chair. Working to ensure freelancers get paid for their work and are treated fairly, the project is the Digital Media Division of the National Writers Union.

“As a freelancer, I was never able to be part of a union before,” Higgins says. “It was always something I believed in and desired to be part of but I wasn’t able.”

The organization was created in 2019, when discussions about unionizing newsrooms first started to heat up. Questions of how freelancers could benefit from, and be included in, the gains some more traditionally employed journalists were beginning to receive prompted action. 

“There are a million great things about being unionized,” Higgins says. “I think it’s the only path for workers to be able to gain significant rights. For freelancers, freelancing can be a deeply isolating way to spend your career. You don’t have a newsroom. You don’t have colleagues. It can be a pretty lonely experience. I think it’s a lonely existence emblematic of a lot of the ways that modern life forces us to live, having this itemized existence where we’re less in community with people.” 

Being part of a union provides that community and helps bring other people under the same protections of a more traditional job, including determining whether unfair wage practices are taking place. 

It’s not easy work to do, as freelancers’ ability to collectively bargain is not protected under U.S.labor laws, unlike other industries, Higgins says. But that’s hardly the only a problem for freelance writers.

“That’s a problem facing all precarious workers: rideshare drivers, food delivery workers, sex workers; so many different people who aren’t in more traditional forms of employment,” Higgins says. “Our organizing can be considered collusion and an antitrust violation, which is just one of the many examples of how broken U.S. labor law is. We have to be pretty creative about how we organize. We believe all workers deserve a union and should have the right to collectively bargain and hope to be part of changing that eventually.” 

The union has already passed the Freelance Isn’t Free Act in some cities, including New York City and Columbus, Ohio, with versions of the bill under consideration in Los Angeles and New York State. The legislation is simple: It “requires freelancers get paid and that they get paid within 30 days. It helps stop wage theft from freelancers. That seems an incredibly basic thing but freelancers getting paid late, not getting paid at all, is incredibly common,” Higgins says.

The Freelance Solidarity Project and National Writers Union do not, at this point, require freelancers to join up in order to benefit from the protections the organizations are working for.

“That’s an interesting idea and maybe something we will think about in the future,” Higgins says. “We’re still a relatively young union. We’re fighting for all freelancers and we hope freelancers join the union, but we feel really strongly about fighting for freelancers.” 

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