Unique union-agency alliance
gives freelancers clout with publishers
Freelancers do not have to be at the mercy of exploitative media companies thanks to a unique arrangement that opens the door to independent journalists becoming members of CWA Canada.
An alliance launched earlier this week between the Canadian Writers Group (CWG) and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), the union's largest Local, is the first of its kind in North America, if not the world. The individual freelancers who come together as a collective will have far more clout when negotiating with publishers and broadcasters.
The agreement has already attracted international interest, says Lise Lareau, national president of the CMG.
"After years of stagnating rates and contracts that haven't kept up with the digital realities, this is a true opportunity to improve the economic situation for media freelancers," she says.
"I'm proud to be a partner in this alliance," says Derek Finkle, who founded the CWG last year. The agency, which currently represents some 75 established writers and plans to expand to 150 by mid-2011, is working hard he says "to make sure our writers are compensated properly and signing the fairest contracts possible. With the support of the Canadian Media Guild, our writers will be marketed in a more sophisticated way, and freelance journalists will have an effective way to negotiate more collectively when it comes to publishing contracts that are increasingly less favourable to contributors."
For its part, the CMG will advocate for independent journalists on issues such as copyright, rates, digital and re-use rights. Writers who are represented by the CWG automatically become members of the union's Freelance Branch. That also makes them members of CWA Canada, which has contributed $35,000 to support the alliance.
"Many groups, including trade unions, have been struggling for a long time to represent freelancers effectively," says Lareau. "This alliance is a new model that is already starting to bear fruit."
Indeed, the CMG is currently involved in a dispute between a freelancer and the powerful media conglomerate Rogers Communications. The company, which publishes a panoply of magazines in addition to running a cable system and multiple Internet platforms, syndicated Patricia Pearson's work despite the fact that it had paid only for the right to publish the article in question electronically for 45 days. The CMG's legal representatives are negotiating compensation for her.
This fall, Rogers Publishing started syndicating work by independent journalists online. The CWG noticed in September that stories from late 2009 and early 2010 by Pearson and Ellen Vanstone, first published in Chatelaine, were posted on Yahoo's "Lifestyle" website.
It was discovered that Rogers had a syndication agreement with Yahoo and MSN. The company agreed to remove both stories from the Yahoo website.
The union and the agency are pursuing other such incidents involving Rogers and keeping freelancers informed through their website TheStoryboard.ca. It is intended to be an online community for Canada's independent journalists, complete with the latest news, advice and opportunities for freelancers.
In addition to negotiating individual contracts, the two organizations have begun meeting with publishers, intending to introduce new standards for contracts with freelancers. This will allow independent journalists to benefit from additional revenue their work generates in digital and other new platforms and that protects their copyright and moral rights.
Writers who are selected to join the CWG are represented by Finkle. As their agent, he bargains on their behalf with publications such as the Globe and Mail and Toronto Life and earns a commission for doing so.
Freelancers who are not accepted into the agency's ranks have the option of becoming a member of the CMG's Freelancer Branch at a cost of $150 a year. The union gives them a heightened profile, provides model contracts, offers advice and, in some cases, a certain amount of legal protection.
Because CMG members also belong to the parent union, CWA Canada, they are eligible for savings, discounts and special features on a range of goods and services from cellphones to group insurance.
The CMG represents 6,000 media workers at CBC/Radio-Canada, The Canadian Press, Thomson Reuters, TVO, TFO, Shaw Media and ZoomerMedia. It has represented freelancers at CBC and Radio-Canada (outside of Quebec) for 16 years.
Freelancers at the CBC are protected under the collective agreement between the corporation and the CMG. Union dues of 1.55 per cent are deducted from their earnings, to a maximum of $1,500 a year. Members of the Freelance Branch are entitled to representation by the Guild in negotiations, grievances and other matters associated with their work for the public broadcaster.
The Canadian Writers Group includes a team of agents and support staff dedicated to pairing writers with the best projects and clients. The website, canadianwritersgroup.com, profiles the writers represented by the agency and can be used by publishers and corporate clients to find writers for their projects.
Finkle, a graduate of Princeton University, was a regular contributor to Saturday Night magazine and the Globe and Mail before publishing his first book, No Claim to Mercy, an examination of the controversial Robert Baltovich murder case. From 2002 to 2007, he was the editor of Toro magazine, which garnered more than 60 award nominations, including his own for investigative reporting in 2005.
(This article is an edited compilation of interviews, news releases and blog postings.)