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Can a Freelancers’ Union really help us?

In behavior, blogging, books, business, journalism, life, Media, news, urban life, war, work on March 24, 2013 at 4:33 pm
Freelancers Union Logo

Freelancers Union Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Interesting story in The New York Times about the Freelancers’ Union, a New York based group with 200,000 members:

SOON after landing a job at a Manhattan law firm nearly 20 years ago, Sara Horowitz was shocked to discover that it planned to treat her not as an employee, but as an independent contractor.

“I saw right away that something wasn’t kosher,” Ms. Horowitz recalls. Her status meant no health coverage, no pension plan, no paid vacation — nothing but a paycheck. She realized that she was part of a trend in which American employers relied increasingly on independent contractors, temporary workers, contract employees and freelancers to cut costs….

Ms. Horowitz’s grandfather was a vice president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and her father was a labor lawyer. So it was perhaps not surprising that she responded to her rising outrage by deciding to organize a union…The Freelancers Union, with its oxymoronic name, is a motley collection of workers in the fast-evolving freelance economy — whether lawyers, software developers, graphic artists, accountants, consultants, nannies, writers, editors, Web site designers or sellers on Etsy.

I’m not a member of the FU (Hmmmm, nice abbreviation!), but I applaud her efforts.

Turns out that 87 percent of her members earn less than $50,000 — 29 percent of them make less than $25,000 a year.

God knows, freelancers/temps/contract workers need all the help we can get.

In the same edition of the Times, there’s a fascinating interview about the many powerful emotions we often feel at work. This one really resonated for me:

Certainty is a constant drive for the brain. We saw this with Hurricane Sandy. The feeling of uncertainty feels like pain, when you can’t predict when the lights will come back on and you’re holding multiple possible futures in your head. That turns out to be cognitively exhausting. And the more we can predict the future, the more rewarded we feel. The less we can predict the future, the more threatened we feel. As soon as any ambiguity arises in even a very simple activity, we get a threat response. So we are driven to create certainty.

I get up every day with no idea where my income is going to arrive from in three months from now. I usually work three months ahead — i.e. with enough income lined up to count on that my basic bills will get paid in that time and it buys me time to go line up the next batch. I live by the salesman’s motto: ABCAlways Be Closing.

Which means not just having coffee, sending emails, taking meetings or chatting to potential clients, but closing the deal — agreeing to a set fee, terms and deadline. Working retail, which I did for 27 months selling clothing in a mall, was extraordinarily helpful to me in this respect. I used to be too scared to ask for the sale. Not any more!

Now I’m much better at sussing out the tire-kickers and time-wasters.

Time Selector

Time Selector (Photo credit: Telstar Logistics)

Here are some of the many issues that face freelancers:

– How much will they pay me?

– Is this a lot less (or more) than that they are paying others at my level of skill and experience? (Networking and joining an industry-focused freelance group is essential to determine this.)

– Do I have a contract, and one with terms acceptable to me? If not, how much of it can I negotiate?

— When will I get paid? Some companies are playing truly nasty games — like 90 days after submission. Three months!? I work on 30 days, after which I start sending emails and phone calls.

–How many times will I need to sue in small claims court or hire a lawyer to write a threatening letter on my behalf? (Did it, it worked, from Kansas City to Vancouver.)

– How will I meet my monthly financial commitments when payment arrives late (or not at all?) A line of credit and low-interest credit cards, plus whatever savings you can scrape together.

– Who is the point person who will make sure, internally, that I do get paid? (Both my editors quit one company recently, leaving my payment much more vulnerable. Luckily, it did arrive and within six weeks.)

— When and how can I ask for a higher rate?

— What is the lowest fee I’ll accept, and why am I bottom-feeding?

– How soon can I fire this PITA client?

— Where can I find my next 5,10, 15 new clients?

—Which conferences, events and meetings are really worth investing my hard-won time and money in to meet collegial veterans and learn important new skills?

I grew up in a family where no one had a paycheck. My father made documentary and feature films and television news series. My stepmother wrote television drama. So whatever we earned was whatever our skill, talent and tough negotiation won for us.

Nothing was guaranteed. Just like “real” jobs — which you can (and many do) lose overnight with no warning at all.

I hate the stress of not knowing my annual income will be. I know what I hope to earn, but will I make it? The joy/terror of freelance work is that it’s all up to me.

But, having been summarily canned from a few well-paid jobs and having been badly bullied at a few as well, I know how stressful that is, too.

Do you work freelance?

How’s it going?

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  1. The need for certainty destabilizes the mind, and inhibits progress, for while we are chasing shadows, our creativity dwindles. ‘Tis better to let go of all that is beyond your 9×12 of influence.

    The best thing about poverty is that a lot of control is taken from from the worker, and one is resigned to concentrate on the immediate rather than waste time anticipating that which has not yet happened.

    But a freelancers’ union? – Sure, why not.

    • We still have to balance — if you’re choosing to work independently — how much energy to apply to short-term (rent, food, gas), medium-term (next projects?) and long-term (where my most creative stuff is lurking — TIME?!!!!!)

  2. This is a big trend in Canada as well. My husband is a lawyer ( a late blooming lawyer as he didn’t attend law school until he was 35) he works in a smallish firm with around 20 lawyers, and is considered self employed. No medical or dental coverage, they take 40% of his billings in exchange for an office and legal assistant. A win, win situation for the firm. Once upon a time a law degree in Canada was a golden ticket, now the push is for freelance lawyers who operate without the shield of “big law”

  3. [...] Can a Freelancers’ Union really help us? (broadsideblog.wordpress.com) [...]

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