We spoke with CFU Executive members about their work lives, their struggles as freelancers, and why they became union members and compiled their responses*. Read on to learn more about the people guiding your union and their thoughts on where to go from here.
What kind of freelance work do you do and what does a typical day look like for you?
NORA LORETO, CFU QUEBEC DIRECTOR: I’m mostly a writer. In my writing I tend to cover progressive movements, the labour movement and politics. I have a main contract as the Editor of the Canadian Association of Labour Media. I also do other editing and research. In a typical day, I have to get my kids to daycare. Once the kids are off I make a big pot of coffee and have breakfast at my desk. I stay at my desk until 5:10 every day and I love it. The benefit of working at home is that it means I can take a break to go to my piano, or my guitar, or I can go for walks. But I’m really happy to be at my desk all day.
MICHELLE KEEP, CFU ATLANTIC DIRECTOR: I am a full-time romance author. We handle everything. We’re indie publishers. We do the writing, the cover design, marketing, publishing, and everything there is to writing and publishing a book we do start to finish. We were always writing, just doing it for fun. Then in 2011 I started reading about Amazon’s self-publishing app. That opened up a lot of new opportunities. We thought since we were doing it anyway we’d start putting up some writing just for our fans. It started replacing my income and then we went full time. It’s hard to say what a typical work day looks like. We have a monthly cycle for releases, so things change depending on where we are in the process. One week we’ll be doing the writing, the next week the editing, the next week the graphic design, and then getting ready for release. And then it is release week. It’s a rinse and repeat thing.
MOHAMMAD AKBAR, CFU ONTARIO DIRECTOR: I do a mix of a bunch of things, a lot of graphic design and photography. I’ve been doing this kind of work since I was in my teens. I also do artwork and festival curation, and event management. I do a lot of contract work, especially non-profit contract work, and that involves a lot of different things. Generally I work a large part of the day, usually 8am-8pm, sometimes I do more, and sometimes I do less.
BRIAN BICKFORD, CFU CO-VICE PRESIDENT: I’m an interpreter and a translator working in English, French and Spanish. I’ve been doing this since 2004. Every day is different. I work about 200 days of the year at conferences so I travel a lot. I’m on the road maybe 6 months a year. When not traveling I fill in the gaps with translation work.
CHRISTINE LEWIS, CFU CO-VICE PRESIDENT: I’m an interpreter, I do conference interpretation English to French and the other way around. I’ve been doing that freelance and full time since 1998. I do some translation, but I don’t do as much as I used to because most of my time is taken up with interpretation. On a typical day we’re up early then I head out to whatever venue my next conference is at. I do a lot of traveling for work, so that venue could be in Montreal or outside of Montreal. We basically go where the work is in interpretation.
ETHAN CLARKE, CFU PRESIDENT: I run a company called Campaign Gears that has about 8 contractors. We work for progressive non-profit organizations and unions, helping them run their campaigns. That often means developing websites, email systems, videos, strategy training-- anything that someone might need when running a campaign. In a typical day I roll out of bed, work for a few hours, go play video games, then work for a few more hours. I’m not sure I have a typical work day. I’m not well suited for an intense seven hour shift. I much prefer to work when I feel like working and not try to force it, so I work whenever.
What made you decide to become involved in the CFU?
MOHAMMAD: I was looking for a union that fit my needs and the kind of work that I do. The CFU was the perfect mix—we are trying to unionize workers that aren’t traditionally organized and that don’t have traditional workplaces.
CHRISTINE: I come from a union background—my grandparents had Tommy Douglas at their kitchen table on a number of occasions. I am quite pro-union. Given neo-conservative cuts to pretty much everything social, it’s important to find ways to keep supporting everybody and unions are one way of doing that.
BRIAN: I started working with Unifor, they are one of my clients, I learned about the CFU from there. I do a lot of work with unions—I’ve been working with unions since 2005. I thought this was a way to give back to the movement.
ETHAN: The clients that I wanted, wanted people who were a part of the labour movement. It’s good that they wanted labour workers, and I wanted to work for people who wanted labour workers. That’s why I became a member. Why I actually became involved and started to take on leadership roles was because I saw the potential of an organization that had a union structure where the members all choose to be members, and are very capable, working in an industry that really needs a union and that has a huge amount of space to grow.
NORA: I was writing a book on unions and organizing and the CFU was featured in the latter part of the book, which talks about emerging forms of union organizing. At that time the CFU in its current form was just emerging. I was aware of the organization, and other unions that exist for people in my line of work. I made a decision about which union to work with primarily based on who had more coverage in Quebec.
MICHELLE: My husband found Rebecca Rose [CFU member and former organizer] on social media and started reading about it. We had a conversation with her. We’ve always been union-minded, so it seemed like a natural fit to want to find a union once we went freelance. The fact that we get benefits and have a community is nice. We felt like being with the union was the right thing to do.
What is the best part about being part of a union?
ETHAN: The best part of being part of a union is connecting with other freelancers who work in very different fields, and discovering that we are actually struggling with the same things. We can then try to find solutions and problem solve the collective issues that we have as freelancers.
NORA: Being a freelancer is really hard, really isolating. You have great risk if you are writing about things that anal
yze power. I haven’t had to go to the union for help for my own problems, but I’ve certainly helped others in bad situations. Having someone who has our back in the event of disputes or conflicts is really important.
MICHELLE: The labour movement, anti-poverty work and activism towards trying to make the world a better place for all workers is really important to us. It’s important to make sure that freelancers, who face so much precarity, have some union protections. We’re stronger together. Growing the union movement to deal with the problems of today is important to us. That’s really important now when precarious work and part-time work is on the rise, and freelance work is becoming more sought after for both employers and people looking for work.
BRIAN: The best part of being a union member is knowing that if ever anything happened there would be a couple hundred people to back me up. I also really enjoy the international solidarity stuff that happens with unions, not specifically the CFU, but generally speaking. I like the idea of helping people in other countries, and helping people get out of poverty.
MOHAMMAD: It’s the ability to mobilize on different issues. I think an issue I’d like to see more mobilization around is developing more resources. I’m interested in us developing more resources, and developing more codified rules around freelance work and more protections for freelancers. I’m also someone who wants to see people push for more organizations and more government bodies to specifically engage in unionized work or engage with unionized freelancers, as opposed to non-unionized freelancers.
CHRISTINE: The best part of being part of a union is the solidarity. It’s being able to come together for a cause and being able to express yourself together. With a union you know that you can let people know how a colleague or employer is treating you, and you can rely on that solidarity. You know that someone else is going to be supportive of you.
What are the most pressing issues facing freelancers?
MICHELLE: The lack of a safety net. So many things can change on a dime, and it impacts all freelancers. Freelancers tend to be the first to be cut when companies are facing cutbacks. They are the most easily taken advantage of. We hear constantly about people trying to haggle on rates, and not paying or not paying on time. There is a total lack of consideration or concern for freelancers. We’re not really treated as if we deserve any security.
MOHAMMAD: I think precarious work is a big deal. It is a devaluation of work and that is the biggest thing. I think a lot of people have seen their work devalued and the result of that is a significant loss of income and resources.
BRIAN: I’d say not knowing who you are going to work for. I know interpreters who work without a contract, and I think that’s really dangerous on an individual level. For freelancers in general I think it can be a better fit than working got an employer. When I first started freelancing, my Mom told me that she was worried I wouldn’t have a stable source of income. But I’m not putting my eggs all in one basket; I’m putting my eggs in 200 baskets. The more clients I have the more stability I have. I see a great future in freelance work. I read somewhere that by 2020, half of Canada’s workforce will be freelancers.
ETHAN: We face a never ending push by clients to get a better deal that pits us against each other. In the industries that I’m in there are a lot of platforms and systems that try to convince people they can do this work without skilled help. They don’t see the reason for paying amounts that would result in a living wage. So people try to do it themselves. And then they do it badly, because they are not professionals, and they wonder what happened. My clients don’t do that because they are all unions and they like to pay people. But it is a pretty common. My hope is that new CFU initiatives like the rate card and the contract template will help stop freelancers from undercutting each other. We’ll probably never stop clients from trying to look for a better deal, but trying to work together so we don’t play into that is definitely a good thing.
NORA: This really depends on the kind of freelancer we’re talking about. Some people are doing really well, and some of our members are really struggling. This is partly dependent on what field you find yourself in. For writers like myself, who depend on a robust industry with good full time, part time and freelancer opportunities, the cuts in this industry have a huge impact on our quality of life. We need good jobs in the industry to improve our own working conditions. It’s a really difficult situation, and makes our futures really uncertain. Many writers need to have a main contract that allows them to also do freelance work on the side. I couldn’t survive on writing alone, not even close.
CHRISTINE: One of the most pressing issues is the lack of stable employment, which is a neoconservative trend. Companies prefer to do business with freelancers because they don’t have to pay for things like benefits and healthcare, which all end up being the government’s responsibility. Once you do get something that does resemble stable employment, as in my case working as a freelance interpreter, it might seem to be stable, but we end up having to fund absolutely all of our overhead. Independent workers have to assume all the costs for everything we do and use, and yet people complain about our rates.
What should people know about the CFU?
NORA: The CFU is a project, an experiment, we need people to be involved, there is a lot of heavy lifting needed. So if you want to get more involved, please do!
BRIAN: I’d like the CFU to be better known in general. I’ve sent a letter to all the interpreters and translators that I work with about the CFU and what we can do. I’d love to see the CFU evolve to not just go after freelancers in the communications sector, it should be much broader than that. It’s stronger to have 2500 members in a bunch of different professions than a couple hundred just in communications.
MICHELLE: We are always looking for super empowered people, and we love being able to throw what we can behind our members, and help them get what they want. Members just need to tell us what they want and we will do what we can. Some of the larger unions can’t do this as much, but I think we are very member-driven and very accessible.
MOHAMMAD: The CFU does a lot of really cool things for freelancers, and I think more people should check out our resources.
CHRISTINE: In numbers there is power. If you’re not going to join for yourself, join for the other people who need it. That’s what solidarity is about. It’s about collective thinking and working together and supporting each other. People say, ‘yeah, but what would I get out of joining?’, but it’s not just about you. If you’re not going to become a member for yourself, become a member for the people who need it.
ETHAN: think that it’s important that members understand that we are all working on this together. They have the opportunity to step forward and do what I did, which was see the potential of this thing and decide to ride the tiger. It’s a lot of fun to be involved. I hope that I see all our members participate in whatever capacity they can.
*Interviews edited slightly for length.