What subs want!

THE NUJ'S Freelance Organiser John Toner is often asked how he can get better rates for freelance sub-editors. "People imagine I have this secret, some sort of ancient Celtic enigma," John mused - but "I don't have the philosopher's stone." But we do have good old-fashioned freelance self-organisation.

The Fairness At Work Act 2000 has led to re-recognition of the NUJ collectively to represent staff journalists, but very few papers have union recognition in representing casual sub-editors as part of bargaining: the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Express group and the Newcastle Chronicle and Journal. But for most freelance subs, "it's 1999 - but no one wants to party."

Freelance self-organisation, says John, is "every bit as difficult as it sounds. We have to pick a target - choose a workplace where we know freelances are fed up with their rates. That's the easy part. But where is there a flicker of dissent that we can fan into a flame?"

John gave the example of the Independent, where for some time the union has been trying to do something about the "awful rates and licences." The freelances have good relations with the staff Chapel (the union's organisation based in a publisher's office). Earlier this year, there was a good response to a "consultative  ballot" of the freelance subs and contributors on whether they would support strike action by the staff. On the eve of the planned strike the Chapel were "inclined to accept" a new offer.

The freelance ballot sent a signal to management that "they could forget about pulling in freelances at seven day's notice. It's a very short time to find cover - I know casuals would find going on strike a fearful thing. That is a genuine fear and we have to take it into account21. There's no legal protection for freelances, but regular subs are not so easily replaced. Don't believe as a casual that you're easily replaced." They need people who know the paper, its style and its little ways.

John also noted that the Bristol Evening Press and Post newspaper group - notorious for swingeing staff cuts - is right now negotiating over photographers' rates and licences. We have made progress over their first two offers and - for example - we have agreement to match the rates on the higher-paying paper.

"Why is a company that we couldn't stop sacking staff negotiating over photographers?" John asks: "Because they need them."

John also described the case of Glyn Roberts, a casual sub at the Telegraph. The Employment Appeals Tribunal ruled that he is in fact an employee. The crucial fact is that in 1997 he agreed to work a regular Saturday casual shift on condition it be guaranteed with the exception of Saturdays he'd be on holiday, and the Telegraph agreed. So there was, in the legal terminology, a "mutuality of obligations".

As the Tribunal noted, "not all casual workers will be under the same contract."  Such factors as whether casual subs are paid by PAYE or gross are only a minor factor in determining whether a casual is a freelance or actually an employee. "What's important is the relationship with the company, whether they work the same days each week, and the longevity of the relationship. If casual subs have questions about their entitlement to holiday pay, John advises they contact the Freelance Office. How can we get staff to support freelances? John recommends spreading propaganda aimed at telling them that it's in their interests to stop management using subs to undercut staff. If staff ballot and call an action, freelances are free to decide individually to support staff, but there are legal issues with staff journalists striking in support of freelances. It might be possible to persuade staff who have balloted for action over their own concerns that simultaneity is good.

While subbing contracts are one of the more straightforward negotiations to do, a member reported many subs are being "hoodwinked" into signing contracts they don't have to, with bad clauses on overtime, indemnity and cancellation. Phil Sutcliffe, a tutor on the NUJ's generic Pitch and Deal course, is now considering a possible course in negotiating customised for freelance sub-editors.

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