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EFJ Seminar: Union mobilisation faces new challenges

Should bloggers be recruited into journalists’ unions? What about web designers? How can freelance journalists, working in ever more precarious conditions be organized and included in collective bargaining agreements? Indeed what criteria should determined who carries a press card?

These were some of the pertinent issues that exercised the minds of participants in a European Federation of Journalists (EFJ) seminar here in the Finnish capital Helsinki over the weekend.

The two-day seminar was organized in collaboration with one of EJF’s affiliates, the Union of Journalists in Finland, bringing together many journalists’ unions and media policy-makers across Europe to address the unprecedented challenges in the media industry and how to adequately respond to them.

Underpinning this transformation is the technological revolution that has forced newspapers to adopt new business models in order to cuts costs.

According to one recent study, the number of mainstream journalists in the UK has shrunk at about 30 per cent in 10 years.

Similarly, Andreas Bittner of the German Journalists Union (DJV) reporting the results of a survey he conducted, recounted the transformation of Frankfurter Rundschau, a traditional German daily newspaper that had in ten years shed its staff from 1600 employees to 190 and outsourcing 30 of them.

And Arto Nieminen, president of the Finnish union, in his opening remarks at the seminar, pointed out that the job losses in the media sector during the recession will not be recovered and yet the journalists who retained their jobs are burdened with too much work they are unable to handle – a situation that would lead to loss of quality in journalism.

“Yet the new media is burgeoning, digital and community radio is exploding, the news is being reported in Twitter and in Facebook and universities continue to churn out ever increasing number of people who want to be journalists”, said Gary Herman former chairman of the UK’s NUJ’s New Media Industrial Council.

So a picture is painted of an industry sitting on two stools:  on the one hand is a declining industry and yet on the other hand it is also appears to be a burgeoning one.

 

With this backdrop participants raised concerns over the future prospects of trade unionism in the industry with such a variegated picture even in the current situation where union mobilisation still faces insurmountable obstacles.

For instance, in the Czech Republic and Hungary, even staff journalists cannot negotiate with their employers because of loopholes in the law let alone freelancers, while in Switzerland, journalists have been trying for the past six years to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement but their employers have simply ignored them.

According to Bittner, the recruitment of new members is made difficult by a generation gap.

Apart from the considerable splintering of the sector into online, mainstream journalists and bloggers with its attendant conflict of interests, there is also a gulf between old and retiring journalists, and young and mainly freelance journalists who do not attach significance to the old notion of workers solidarity, Bittner said.

And the strike weapon, he said, is increasingly becoming irrelevant especially in the print media because readers will not even notice there is a strike since it is easier nowadays to produce newspapers using news agency and syndicated material.

Herman also pointed out that there is contested ground within the new media organizations as to who should be representing them, should it be communication unions or journalism unions or graphic and design-based unions?

On the other hand, according to Herman, there are also young people coming into jobs within the new media who see themselves, as “members of a technocracy” who tend to think that unions are old-fashioned, so unions have an obligation to demonstrate that they are not old-fashioned in order to capture this new crop of media workers.

 

The situation of freelance journalists drew particular attention from participants. There is increasing trend towards freelancing in many European countries. The membership of freelance journalists in journalists’ unions ranges between 10 to 20 per cent in the Nordic countries to about 80 per cent in certain Eastern and Central European countries.

In Finland for instance, freelance journalists are the largest growing category within the union, constituting some 20 per cent of the membership.

With very few exceptions, in the vast majority of cases across Europe freelancers, or even sometimes referred to as “forced lancers” have no collective bargaining agreements and their working conditions is even described as akin to indentured labour. A recent Finnish survey by the National Institute for Health and Welfare (THL) has reported that 17 per cent of self-employed – which includes freelance journalists – are living below poverty line as opposed to 3 per cent of salaried workers.

The underlying problem is the status of freelance journalists in the legislation of many European countries which defines freelance journalists as self-employed. From that position the EU market competition laws precludes them in collective bargaining on the grounds that they cannot dictate fees as individual business enterprises or else they would become a monopolies.

However, the legislation is oblivious of the fact that there is an asymmetric negotiating power relation between freelance journalists and their clients, who usually are big newspapers or big broadcasters. In many instances, freelancers entirely depend on one client.

Therefore according to Renate Schroeder, Co-Director of the European Federation of Journalists, “we have to prove that freelance journalists are economically dependent workers”.

Once that is accepted it would become possible for journalists as well to have a collective agreement because according to her, there is now discussions going within the European Commission that economically dependent workers should have the right to a collective bargaining agreement.

In the absence of collective agreements in the meantime minimum standards such as author’s rights can be secured for the freelance journalists to enable them secure payments for the secondary use of their material as well as equal pay for the work of freelancers as for staff journalists, Schroeder said.

Linus Atarah