What does a union mean to you? This is the question that we are posing to friends, workmates and fellow Wobblies as part of this ongoing series. Traditionally, trade unions have an association with heavy industries, transport, the public sector and professions – mostly stable work with a degree of social recognition. The IWW has always run against this thinking, maintaining that not just these but all workers in every workplace should be united under “One Big Union”. This has been shown throughout its history by organising sectors of the working class who have been marginalised, ignored or excluded from other unions – migrant and itinerant labour, women, children, people of colour, queer and trans workers amongst others.
It is in this spirit that this irregular series focuses on the experience of work that is located outside of traditional spaces, is organised informally or atypically, is poorly known or misunderstood. In staging these inquiries we hope to understand what the One Big Union idea means within contemporary capitalism, what social, political and economic functions unions must fulfil and how organisers can further support and amplify existing acts of solidarity within these sectors.
In this article we talk to Dean about their experiences of freelancing and self-employment.
- How would you describe your work?
I am primarily a freelance photographer and I also do occasional work in the film and TV industry. Currently that involves working as a runner or helping with camera crews to move their equipment around a set, but I am aiming towards working as a camera operator.
My work is very varied: In the last six months I have been part of three community-art projects as a documentary photographer, worked for two magazines and some blogs, given some photography lessons to local kids, worked for a charity as their regular event photographer, worked on a major film set, worked on a music video and a short horror film and loads more. In short, my work is varied from month to month.
- What do you like about your job?
I like the variety of tasks, and the fact I have more control over what I am doing day to day. I previously worked in social care and a large section of my work involved pointless meetings, filling out spreadsheets, answering emails etc and it was painfully dull. I think one of the main problems with work these days is how monotonous and long it is, the variety keeps me from getting bored.
I also like having control over who I work with and for what I want to do with my day – if I want to have some time off or I want to have a beer at my desk on a Friday afternoon while doing paperwork. These things are minor, but make a big difference to how I feel about what I am doing and the control I feel over it. The job I quit 8 months ago had managers who would read your emails, micromanage everything you did, text you at night or on weekends to demand more work and loads more. I don’t have to deal with any of that now.
I like that I can also see a clearer link between how much I work and the effect it has in the world and on my life. In my old job I often felt like the work I was doing had no point and achieved nothing and I was only there because of my contract or because I needed to pay the bills. By keeping on top of emailing clients, applying for contracts, applying for funding for projects, attending events, actually doing different jobs etc. I can direct what I am doing much more and can see the results – e.g. my photos in a magazine.
I like the variety of people I work with. On a recent job I worked on a film set. I worked alongside dozens of people – actors, caterers, carpenters, make-up artists, camera operators, security guards, runners, electricians, directors, set designers and loads more – it makes the job interesting and gives you a lot of different people to ask for advice or help.
- What do you dislike about your job?
Sometimes the insecurity is nerve-wracking. I can be right down to the wire in terms of my income and being able to pay rent/bills, especially as the city I live in (Bristol) has started to become expensive in the last couple of years due to rapidly increasing living costs.
There is also sometimes an expectation amongst a lot of clients that you’ll work for free or for low rates. The expectation is that you are only being paid for the time they see you, when, in reality, the rate needs to cover all the extras too. For example, on a photoshoot clients will often not think that the time to edit photos and do related admin should be included. I always try and work for a reasonable rate, both for myself, and because I dislike the expectation/precedent that will be set. I have worked for some clients who will try and get you to put in far more hours than they are paying for, essentially cutting down the hourly rate to below minimum wage.
Depending on the month, it can get lonely. I often hot desk at a cheap place so that other people are around when I am doing the boring side of my work – e.g. the admin, emails etc. Being isolated from other people can make it quite difficult some months, depending on what I have worked on and how many other people I see.
A lack of holiday pay or sick pay is quite difficult. I am entitled to some support from the government each month, but it is hard to get, and there isn’t much support or help to apply for this financial help. The lack of a safety net is probably my biggest concern and it does sometimes have a pretty big impact on my mental health.
- Is there anything you do on the job that makes it easier/safer/more enjoyable?
When I’m on a job I generally find the work enjoyable as it involves being creative and having to problem-solve on the go, and it’s usually full-on so the time passes quickly. I try and make sure that I get out of the house if I am having a ‘desk day’ so that I get some exercise, speak to some people and don’t feel isolated. I also try and stick to a reasonable workload each week, usually 35-40 hours so I have time to see friends and do other stuff with my time.
- What does solidarity in your work mean to you?
Solidarity in the industry is quite interesting in that there is both loads of competition but also a lot of support. Often jobs will be snapped up very fast, and it’s quite hard to get established or get into the first few jobs. A lot of the work I get is from people I have previously worked for, who come back and ask me to work for them again, because they like me, or because I have done a good job and they know I can be trusted.
It depends on what kind of job I am working on as to how solidarity will manifest. So, generally on a photography job I will be working either alone with clients, or as part of a team of unrelated people – for example, artists, musicians etc. so there isn’t really a sense of solidarity. On a film set, when there are a larger crew of people around, the support is generally pretty good, and you’ll be looked after by your team – crew meals are a regular thing, as are after shift drinks – the sheer fact you’ve pulled together a project in a tight deadline creates a sense of camaraderie. It feels more like a traditional job and though most of the people there will be self-employed you tend to work together more closely. Lots of people in the industry with more experience will also happily meet you for a coffee and a chat about work or training, and sometimes I’ve ended up getting leads for jobs in this way. There is a general expectation due to the tight schedules of work that work is full-on with long days, but that in return the crew you are working with will help you out, and that you’ll be looked after. It feels a bit informal, but it’s there. On the whole I’d say the photography work is much lonelier than the work for film/tv.
I’ve found that self-employed people do tend to share experiences with each other even if they work in completely different careers. In Bristol I and a few other people I am friends with regularly chat about self-employed issues, help each other do our taxes, give each other advice on difficult clients or quotes, help each other if invoices aren’t paid etc. It’s less formal than a union, but it’s something.
Sometimes there are issues though, and it can be a concern that a client will get quotes off several people and then pick the cheapest. I think sometimes self-employed people are put in situations where they are expected to undercut each other. Luckily, in my industry, there is some protection against this. The two unions I have most contact with other than the IWW (BECTU and the NUJ) are both pretty good at supporting freelancers as the industry has more experience with them as a norm. There is also generally more of an expectation amongst people who share the industry that you’ll keep an eye on dodgy employers trying to do this – there is for example a Facebook group where people can find jobs, chat to others in the industry and report employers who try and hire people at under the standard industry wage.
What does a union mean to you?
It means mutual defence and support. It means knowing someone has your back when you need it. It means sharing resources and helping each other deal with bullying, or exploitation. I’ve grown up around people who have been active in unions (many members of my family have been shop stewards or elected branch reps for different unions), so I have seen how important they can be.
I think creative people in general have a harder time getting support from unions because the work is so varied and so self-directed to a large extent. That said, the unions that do focus on the industry generally have a lot of experience supporting freelancers and can provide a lot of help.