A new kind of union...that’s not quite a union

Ana Jahannes, freelancer

THE CANADIAN FREELANCE UNION IS A ‘STAR TREK’ UNION. It aims to bravely go where no union has gone before—without actually being a union.

The Canadian Freelance Union (CFU) is a Community Chapter of Unifor, the largest union in the private sector in Canada. Unifor came up with the idea for community chapters as a way to extend the strengths and values of union solidarity to the direct benefit of workers without a union—particularly those in the so-called gig economy—and to the community at large.

Unifor says community chapters could also include workers in workplaces where unionizing campaigns have not yet succeeded; workers in precarious jobs; unemployed workers; students and any other group of workers wanting to improve their economic and social conditions.

Unifor has two Community Chapters: the CFU, representing self-employed media and communications workers; and Unifaith, representing ministers and other workers employed by the United Church of Canada.

Sticking together

The CFU has an elected national executive and five regional representatives. It represents over 350 members who are freelance workers in every branch of the media and communications industry.

Many are folks who once worked in newspaper newsrooms. They were laid off and pushed out when the news started going online. They no longer had any connection to their old unions. The Freelancers Union is a way to help them stick together and build solidarity to become a force as strong as a union.

Three key benefits

Ethan Clark is the president of the CFU. He says the CFU offers its members three important benefits, the first is simply companionship and building community

“We end isolation,” he says. “Our members don’t have a water cooler to gather around, so we offer them ways to talk with others doing similar kinds of work, either in person or online, where they can just form social bonds and support each other.”

The CFU also offers its members access to services that might be unavailable, or too costly to access separately as individuals, things like home insurance and extended health insurance. Unifor kicks in to lower the cost of the CFU health plan. “So we get a better deal than you ever would by yourself,” says Clark.

CFU also offers services that make it more like a real union: like giving advice and practical support on how to get a client to pay up and on how to “bargain” a solid contract to begin with.

“People who hire freelancers don’t generally expect a freelancer to be backed up by an organization,” says Clark. “When they do find out the freelancer is not alone it’s usually enough to get things going. If if isn’t, we can help escalate things: even by going to court and that sort of thing.”

But there’s really no substitute for a strong contract says Clark. The CFU offers its members “a strong contract template” to use to eliminate problems before they can even happen.

Another tangible the CFU offers its members, to build community and confer legitimacy, is a press card from the International Federation of Journalists.

The third key objective for the CFU is to give freelancers a political voice, to be “an advocate for people who work like us,” says Clark.

Future prospects

Two truths stare unionists in the face: first, work is changing in ways that Karl Marx and Henry Ford could never have imagined; second, unions are going to have to change too, in ways no union leader every imagined.

The Unifor experiment with Community Chapters is one of the first efforts to make that change. It may work. It may not. Either way, it must not be the last effort unions make to stay effective and relevant for every worker in every workplace.

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