Friday, October 14, 2005

Freelancers of the World, Unite!

The Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada is forming a union of freelancers.

This is important news for everyone in the publishing industry -- production people as well as editors, and in-house staff as well as freelancers. There has been no strong movement towards unionization within the Canadian publishing industry for a decade or more, and that's unfortunate.

Relative to their level of education, workers in the publishing industry make peanuts. Part of this can't be helped; one can't squeeze blood from a stone. The issues we face, however, are not just monetary in nature -- job security, health benefits, and working conditions are no less important than wages. Industry standards, such as unregulated and unlimited internships, have helped to create a situation where publishing employees are ripe for exploitation.

It wasn't always this way. The earliest trade unions in Canada were started by printers during the early 1800s. In 1872, the struggle by Toronto printers for a nine-hour workday (part of a larger worldwide movement for an eight- or nine-hour day) eventually led to the legalization of Canadian unions.

So what's different today? We see ourselves as professionals without the corresponding benefits of being a professional class. It's okay to work as an intern, doing the work of a junior editor, because we see it as paying our dues, even if there's no job guaranteed at the end. (I have no problem with internships, but they ought to be used as an apprenticeship program of sorts, not as a source of free labour.) We complain good-naturedly about our low salaries and crazy hours. It's all part of the job we love.

An awareness that publishing workers are workers -- even if we work in funky offices and love our jobs -- can only help the industry as a whole. It goes hand-in-hand with promoting our work as necessary and vital. (A more unified and conscious industry might have made more of a fuss about Chapters' disastrous returns policy, for example.) The CEP initiative is a step in the right direction -- hopefully one that will lead to further positive upheavals.