With newspapers dying, unions seek freelance journalists

With more than 8,000 buyouts and layoffs at newspapers throughout the country so far this year, and more than 15,000 newspaper jobs lost last year, there are a lot more freelance writers and editors on the market. I'm one of them.

To help them better deal with the new marketplace, unions that are losing members at newspapers are stepping up to form unions for freelance journalists looking for help with setting wages, finding group health care and other benefits.

One such union is forming in the San Francisco Bay Area, which organizers say would be the first freelancers unit in the country officially tied to a local office of The Newspaper Guild.

"As people leave our newsrooms, our local bargaining units lose members," said Sara Steffens, an organizer for the California Media Workers Guild, which could see hundreds of potential members join.

Full disclosure: Steffens and I worked together at the Contra Costa Times, a daily newspaper in the Bay Area, before we were laid off last year.

Health care is the biggest concern among freelancers looking for work, she said, and the new union's first task is to try to find a group rate somewhere. But there are also "a million little things" workers forget about having at a company until they leave, Steffens said. Many were handled by a human resources department, such as tax withholding and state disability. And there's the issue of having someone fix your computer, for example.

"Like everybody else in the newspaper industry, we're trying to figure out how to help people move on," Steffens said.

There's a Freelancers Union in New York, which offers retirement plans. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has vowed to work with the union to develop benefits.

While anti-trust laws prevent freelance journalists from setting rates that they would require employers to pay, the union could create a sort of freelancers stamp of approval that businesses could use if they hired union members.

The Newspaper Guild in the Bay Area used to have two separate units, in San Jose and San Francisco, but those have merged into one because of declining membership at newspapers. Approximately 300 guild jobs in the Bay Area have been lost in the past year or so, and more are dropping. The San Francisco Chronicle is in the midst of eliminating 150 jobs.

With more job cuts expected at newspapers across the country, unions for freelance journalists could become some of the biggest unions around.

Aaron Crowe is an unemployed journalist in the San Francisco Bay Area. Read about his job search at www.AaronCrowe.net
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