eNewsletter • AUTUMN 2013
It was one of the proudest moments in CWA Canada’s history: A media union victoriously stood up for hundreds of non-members who cherish their independence but were being victimized because of it.
It was Amber Nasrulla who unwittingly triggered this seismic shift in the world of freelancers, from being the fiercely proud lone wolves of the industrial era to seeking the security of the pack in a rapacious internet age.
Last November, Nasrulla was pitching a story to an editor at Transcontinental (TC Media), publisher of more than 30 magazines. It was something she had done many times over the previous 10 years. But that relationship came to a screeching halt when she was informed she would have to sign a new contract.
She was aghast at what she read and sought counsel from another professional. She was referred to Derek Finkle, founder of the Canadian Writers Group (CWG), for his assessment of the document, which demanded full copyright and waiver of moral rights with no additonal compensation. It was non-negotiable. Finkle proclaimed it draconian and advised her not to sign it.
She didn’t. Instead, she went public about it — anonymously at first — after Finkle put her in touch with Rachel Sanders, editor of theStoryboard.ca, a website for independent content creators that grew out of a unique alliance forged in 2010 between Finkle’s agency and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), which has long had a Freelance Branch that bargains a collective agreement for contractors who perform work for the CBC.
The alliance was funded by the CMG’s parent union, CWA Canada, which had resolved to extend the benefits of membership to all freelancers and student journalists who were contending with the growing scourge of unpaid internships.
With roots reaching back to the 19th century, CWA Canada has always been a champion of quality journalism and defender of intellectual property rights. It was alarmed by the devaluation of work performed by content creators, be they isolated employees or independent contributors, and concerned for the future of the nation’s newsrooms. Strength in numbers was its best hope for countering the formidable forces undermining creative workers’ ability to make a decent living.
The CMG has led the way in advocating for independent content creators on issues such as copyright, rates, digital and re-use rights. It was primed for action when news of the Transcontinental travesty broke on Feb. 8, 2013.
This was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to thousands of the country’s freelancers that, while they could not avail themselves of collective bargaining, they could use the power of the collective to get a fair contract.
Don Genova, president of the CMG’s Freelance Branch, told Storyboard early on that the new “contract is much worse for freelancers than even the one the company imposed in 2009. At that time, some freelancers decided to stop doing work for the company, but many of us felt more could have been done to pressure the company to back off if the freelancers were better organized.”
“This time,” he noted, the CMG “is in a position to bring freelancers into the union and back a collective action and support individual freelancers who join the effort.”
“If enough freelancers affected by this contract join with us,” said Genova, “we can stand together to stop this unreasonable Transcontinental grab from becoming the norm in the publishing business.”
In March, the CMG’s Karen Wirsig set up a Facebook page (Back off, Elle and Canadian Living publisher) where freelancers could share information and connect with one another. Word began to spread among writers, photographers and illustrators that a media union was preparing to do battle on their behalf. The page had more than 200 members within 12 hours.
Author and writer Jay Teitel, secure in his freelance career of nearly 40 years, during which he had relied upon the integrity of publishers and broadcasters to respect copyrights and fairly compensate creative work, didn’t wait for the union to speak for him. He lambasted TC Media in a Storyboard post for “effectively proposing that I willingly agree to let you steal a portion of my work.”
But the Guild had his blessing for defending the rights of younger freelancers who couldn’t risk biting the hand that fed them.
In the early years, “I would have been contemptuous of the idea of joining a union, but that’s not true today.”
The Internet, says Teitel, has changed everything. “Unions started because workers were being exploited” in centuries past. “Now young people are being exploited in this online world.”
No longer is it antithetical for a freelancer to consider joining a union. “Forget that in this climate. Young (freelancers) are swimming against a huge tide of their own generation.”
In late March, the CMG sent a letter to Ted Markle, president of TC Media, seeking a meeting to discuss the new freelancer contract. He declined the invitation, saying the company preferred to “communicate directly with our freelancers” and “can assure you of our commitment to continuing the good business relationship, built on respect and trust, that we have always had with our freelancers.”
That certainly was not how Nasrulla framed the situation back in February. She told Storyboard that she couldn’t continue to work for TC Media under the circumstances. “I have to walk away from this because it’s just wrong. I don’t want to be bullied. I don’t want to be in an abusive relationship. It’s time to go.”
It was Markle’s letter to the CMG that convinced Nasrulla to reveal her identity as the whistleblower, writing in an April 10 Storyboard post entitled ‘I Am Not Anonymous’ that it was fear that drove her into the shadows.
“I feared that other editors would think I was whining or being a brat, and not want to work with me. ... I was afraid of being labelled histrionic.” Nasrulla wrote that she had come to believe that “it’s crucial to stand up, speak the truth, and be counted.”
To help the freelancers do just that, the Guild and Finkle’s CWG formed a coalition with the Quebec Association of Independent Journalists, the Professional Writers Association of Canada, The Writers’ Union of Canada, the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators and the Canadian Freelance Union to put pressure on the publisher to withdraw or revise the contract.
Letters were written to TC Media and a federal minister about the fact that the company receives some $8 million a year from Heritage Canada’s Periodical Fund, yet puts the squeeze on freelancers who could barely earn a living even before the contentious contract was introduced.
By mid-April, there was an indication that TC Media was succumbing to the pressure. Freelancers in Quebec were being told they would not be required to sign the new contract. The CMG learned that a new draft of the agreement was being prepared.
As the momentum of the spring campaign slid into the summer doldrums, CWA Canada was moving to capitalize on the awareness that had been raised among independent content creators. It hired a Freelance Organizer, who would connect with the widely scattered independents and inform them of the advantages awaiting them as members of CWA Canada if they joined the CMG’s Freelance Branch.
Datejie Green was barely settled into her desk at the CMG offices in Toronto when word came that TC Media was circulating a new contract to freelancers in Quebec. According to a report in Le Devoir, the French agreement allows contributors in Quebec to retain both their copyright and their moral rights.
The CMG said it was cautiously optimistic, but would reserve judgment until the English version of the contract was available for scrutiny.
Nasrulla, however, was ecstatic. “This win is fantastic!” She credited the Canadian Media Guild for the victory. “Having the weight of a union behind us is terrific,” declared the freelancer who was about to become CWA Canada’s newest member.
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