Freelancers Need Union Protections | Opinion

Staff at Washingtonian recently created the Washingtonian Guild, a union slated for the magazine to secure greater protection for workers and give them a greater voice in the company. So far, Washingtonian Media CEO Cathy Merrill–even after walking back her op-ed written in The Washington Post, which threatened to demote workers for staying remote as the pandemic eases—will not voluntarily recognize the Washingtonian Guild as a union.

In speaking with Washingtonian's senior editor Marisa Kashino and food editor Jessica Sidman, both unsurprisingly expressed their gratitude for working at the magazine. For writers and journalists alike, creating content for major publications for a living is a dream come true. Sidman described working at Washingtonian magazine as her "dream job in many ways."

Writers and journalists are highly specialized workers, and good ones are few and far between. Even if you're a good writer or journalist, breaking into the editorial world is notoriously difficult. To successfully enter into the editorial world, you sometimes have to go through a period where you are doing uncompensated work, with no guarantee and a low probability that such unpaid work will pay off in the long run. Those that successfully materialize their aspirations by working as writers and journalists deserve to express their work-related concerns to genuinely listening ears. Writers and journalists are not easily replaceable, and without them, newspapers and magazines wouldn't exist.

Both Kashino and Sidman say that unionizing is about much more than Cathy Merrill's op-ed in The Washington Post. They say staffers at the magazine have discussed unionizing for years as a way to address concerns about pay, diversity and a lack of transparency in company decision-making.

Consider that when the pandemic and lockdowns began in March 2020, Washingtonian magazine decided to reduce its worker's vacation days, without any clear sign of how it would help the company. According to Kashino and Sidman, one salient rationale for unionizing is to give staff a seat at the table when such decisions are made, as an alternative to the lack of transparency from management.

The Washingtonian Guild's worries extend beyond having a seat at the table for critical company-wide decisions. Kashino and Sidman both said that there are issues with retaining workers because of low pay. Even in a city as expensive as Washington, D.C., they said some staffers have salaries in the $30,000s, and many employees have not had raises in years.

The Washingtonian Guild's requests are pretty modest and are common in the editorial world. On the one hand, there are real issues at stake. It's not radical to posit that highly specialized workers like those at Washingtonian magazine should receive equal and sustainable pay, better family-leave benefits and an actual say in decisions made by a company. At the magazine, mothers receive three weeks of fully paid parental leave plus short-term disability at 60 percent of their pay while fathers receive one week, according to Kashino and Sidman. Washingtonian can and should do better than to retain the ethic of "you should just be grateful to be here."

A striking example of successful unionization in the editorial world comes from Slate magazine. Slate's union contract with the Writer's Guild of America granted Slate's staff a minimum starting salary of $51,000, paid time off, codified policies to improve diversity and reduce harassment, comp time, union security and a seat at the table when company-wide decisions are made. Upon being granted these benefits, Slate's union stated that, "One of our primary reasons for undertaking this process was our profound love of Slate. We felt so lucky to work with management to put our shared goals into action. Our contract reflects our fundamental values as a company and a workplace."

If unionizing can get done at Slate, it can happen at Washingtonian too. Unionizing is not about workers gaining the upper hand over employers. Nor is it about the proletariat overtaking the bourgeoisie. Rather, Marisa Kashino and Jessica Sidman persistently emphasized that unionizing is for the sake of improving the magazine itself, by making it a more humane and fair place to work.

Fortunately, the Washingtonian Guild is hopeful that they will be recognized as a union soon, even if not by Cathy Merrill. After Merrill passed on voluntarily recognizing the Washingtonian Guild as a union, the Guild has turned to the National Labor Relations Board. By federal law, if the CEO of a company does not recognize their worker's union, the National Labor Relations Board can hold an election to determine whether or not the union in question is recognizable as a union. And according to Sidman and Kashino, the Washingtonian editorial staff overwhelmingly supports the Washingtonian Guild.

 A man works on a laptop
A man works on a laptop in Bryant Park on December 13, 2020, in New York City. Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

Although the situation for the Washingtonian Guild is no longer forlorn, the rights they are fighting to gain for workers at Washingtonian are largely absent throughout the editorial world. "The future of journalism is uncertain," said Kashino. "Giving workers a seat at the table to help navigate some of the complex problems the industry faces is all for the better."

At the moment, freelancers—who make up a substantial and growing amount of the editorial world—have no real union. The Freelancers Union provides online resources to help freelancers educate themselves about how to go about protecting their work, but provides no concrete protections. Freelancers frequently report not getting paid for completed work, clients dragging their feet for months or even years to pay for completed work and having pitched ideas stolen by clients. Some freelancers have had to wait 17 years through lawsuits to get paid by companies like The New York Times. At the moment, freelancers have to fend for themselves.

Most freelancers do not receive subsidies from their clients to do work, and it's highly uncommon for them to obtain health insurance or any other benefits. When clients fail to pay or drag their feet with payment, this puts not only the livelihood of freelancers at risk but also their health and well-being.

As an increasing number of magazines and other publications form unions, the newsrooms that don't unionize risk getting left behind this cultural sea change in the industry.

"We take enormous pride in the work we do at The Atlantic, and we want to see it thrive over the next 163 years. For this reason, we are organizing our newsroom to ensure that all of the people who make The Atlantic what it is are valued and supported," wrote the newly formed union by Atlantic staff.

Along with other newsrooms attempting to unionize, The Atlantic's message and Slate's success in unionizing will set a new precedent in the editorial world. Whether or not CEOs like it, insofar as more newsrooms begin to advocate for unionization—they are—the future of the editorial world will be unionized. The future—as long as the current wave of pleas from the media to unionize continues—will be fairer, and staff in newsrooms will finally gain the rights they've always deserved: equal consideration and humane treatment.

Daniel Lehewych is a graduate student of philosophy at the CUNY Graduate Center, specializing in moral psychology, ethics, and the philosophy of mind. He is a freelance writer, powerlifter, and health science enthusiast.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.