Monday, January 29, 2007

A Different Kind of Union?

Interesting article in the New York Times over the weekend. It detailed the efforts of labor lawyer Sara Horowitz to form a work organization for a group of workers not always covered by a traditional labor union. But what this "Freelance Union" isn't is an actual labor union in the traditional sense ...

Ms. Horowitz has founded the Freelancers Union, offering members lower-cost health coverage and other benefits that many freelancers often have a hard time getting.

A former labor lawyer, Ms. Horowitz intends to form a forceful advocacy group for freelancers and independent contractors, the most mobile members of an increasingly mobile work force. In addition, she is trying to adapt unions to a world far different from yesteryear, when workers often remained with one employer for two or three decades.

Last April we blogged about a non-union studio in New York that wasn't paying its freelancers. A Google search revealed that the studio had been given an award as one of the "Ten Best Companies to Freelance for in NYC" ... by none other than this same Freelancers Union.

Nevertheless, Ms. Horowitz is on to a little something here, because independent contractors and "freelancers" (a term that is increasingly applied to bona fide employees working away from the premises and not just sub-contracting free agents) certainly need access to lower-cost health care and pension benefits, assuming there is no traditionally-structured union available to supply those services.

By creating a new type of union for nontraditional workers, Ms. Horowitz hopes to help revive the labor movement. Its membership has slipped to just 7.4 percent of the private-sector work force, down from one-third in 1960.

Unlike traditional unions, the Freelancers Union has no intention of bargaining with employers...

This new Freelancers Union (which makes an interesting acronym, F.U.) is something that obviously fills a need since a heck of a lot of freelancers are signing on. But unless it actually begins repping its members more aggressively -- like negotiating pay and working conditions -- the organization will pretty quickly bump up against its own self-imposed limits.

Most -- check that, ALL -- entertainment unions and guilds have dealt with the freelance issue for years, and will continue to deal with it. The IATSE in particular has thrived organizing freelance workers. Sometimes they have the leverage and clout to deal with it well, and sometimes not, but the industry in which we work is a business of temporary employment.

In the 21st century, almost nobody is going to work for a single company from the start to the finish of their career. That business model, comforting as it might have been, is now as extinct as the passenger pigeon.


Anonymous said...

when i lived in NYC, i was a member of the Freelancers Union as were many of my coworkers at the aforementioned non-union studio.
it was the only way that the dozens of us who worked there could get reasonable health care. "reasonable" is a stretch though as the coverage is sparse, and the deductible is very very high.

the folks working in the animation biz in NYC work their tails off with only a fraction of the returns that their California counterparts recieve because of union representation.

Steve Hulett said...

Once upon a time, most of the 'toon studios in New York were signator companies with Local 841 (our sister -- and now-deceased -- animation union.)

At one point, Local 841 had a better contract than Local 839 (us), but as animation studios closed in NYC, so finally did Local 841.

Anonymous said...

Why can't 839 rep the people in NY? Is it against the law/ or just too hard to physically manage?

We have friends who used to work at Disney who moved East and wanted to freelance. While here, they were solid union members and wanted to keep their union bennies...but were told that if they freelanced from the east coast on a Disney project, they would not be covered under union contract. What?!!! Why?

Steve Hulett said...

Local 839 isn't a national union. So we run into problems organizing in NYC (Cinematogrpahers -- Local 700 IATSE -- has the east coast jurisdiction.)

Individuals CAN work on the east coast if they're hired in L.A. But if they're picked up in New York, it's tougher.

During the nineties, people working in Chicago or elsewhere often worked and got their benefits. Then, of course, studios were desperate for qualified artists.

All comes down, unfortunately, to if you have the leverage to get what you want.

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