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TU bill weakens our ability to protect people at work - that’s why we have to fight it

19 February 2016

Francis Beckett

A freelance journalist who’s not in the NUJ is at the mercy of every commissioning editor and every publisher. I’ve freelanced in journalism for three decades, and I learned early on that some people like to swindle or bully their freelances, supposing them to be defenceless. More than once the union has been a lifeline.

Most editors I know treat freelances straightforwardly and considerately. Even more reason, though, to fight those that don’t.

Around the turn of the century I was asked by a contract publishing company to edit a magazine produced by the Teacher Training Agency (TTA), now called the Training and Development Agency for Schools. The contract was for one issue, but when it was done they asked me to do a second issue, during which I went to a meeting with the TTA. I had to explain politely that some of their supposed feature ideas were just advertising puffs. The next day, the PR agency phoned and said they didn’t like the way I spoke to the client. My services were no longer required (which was fine) and they didn’t propose to pay me a penny (which wasn’t).

I’d have settled for £1,000, the value of the work actually done, instead of the full contract value of £5,000, but they haughtily told me I could have nothing. I imagine they thought: little freelance, can’t afford to sue. They were right. But NUJ freelance organiser John Toner brought in the lawyers Thompsons. A few days later the PR agency sent a furious, blustering letter to Thompsons, and a cheque for the full £5,000.

I haven’t had to call on the NUJ often – four times, I think, in thirty years – but each time it achieved results I couldn’t have obtained for myself. Most recently, after I’d badgered John Blake Publishing for ages for the last instalment of the advance for my book Blair Inc, Thompsons gave them seven days to pay up. On the sixth day they paid most of the money.

Even when you don’t need to call on the union, it helps if people know you can and will. For years I wrote regularly for several sections of the Guardian, and most of the editors I dealt with were fine. But occasionally you meet an editor who likes to bully freelances – there’s one on every paper, I guess. The one I recall from the Guardian did many unpleasant things, but she never tried to withhold money. She knew that would lead to trouble.

Once in the union, I took the next step and became an activist. There’s a downside to that – some stupid or vindictive employers don’t want to take on a union activist. But I found an upside too. Early in my freelance life, I learned the hard way to make sure you do not depend too heavily on one or two clients - all my work collapsed suddenly, just as my first child was on the way. It was NUJ colleagues who were first to help. One of the lifelines thrown to me was regular shifts on magazines owned by International Thompson, courtesy of the union’s FoC there, Mike Sherrington, later a national NUJ official, whom previously I had hardly known.

I joined the NUJ originally from conviction – if you work in a trade, I thought you ought to be in its union. But I found many practical reasons to be in the union, and to value its strength. Unions today are a lot less strong than they were then, and the weaker they become, the more the balance of power shifts in favour of the big corporations. The new trade union bill is a way of weakening further the power of the unions to protect people like me. That’s why we have to fight it.

Tags: , heartunions, trade union bill, tuc, freelance