Photo: Getty

When Ebony magazine agreed Monday to settle a pay dispute with dozens of freelancers, it signaled an end to a years-long saga pitting a cultural touchstone of the African-American community against the contract workers who helped produce it.

It was also a win for the National Writers Union, a United Auto Workers-affiliated group that for months waged a legal battle to force the issue. Ebony freelancers began joining the union last year after the financially embattled magazine continued missing payments. The much-delayed settlement promises to finally vindicate 45 of those workers owed a collective $80,000. And NWU hopes it’ll be a rallying cry for other freelancers, a group whose employers and interest don’t always overlap.

Screenshot: Ebony

Organizing freelancers “is more complicated, starting with how they work by themselves and don’t always know each other,” NWU President Larry Goldbetter told Splinter. “On the other hand, freelancers are becoming a bigger part of workplace issues, and workplace issues are becoming a much larger part of the industry.”

Many newsrooms have organized in recent years as financially strapped media outlets whittled down budgets by cutting staff or forcing out experienced employees. Freelance journalism has grown ever more competitive, and it’s taken many of the worst aspects of media work to their extremes. Outlets as flush as Vice Media have been publicly shamed for low rates and irregular payments, while part-time workers at WNYC were exposed to a culture of harassment with few official avenues for recourse. Such instability is ubiquitous across media, and freelancers’ lack of healthcare and other benefits magnifies it.

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There have been piecemeal attempts to make life better for contract workers, from individual companies offering insurance to nonprofits providing legal support to grassroots attempts to reveal which outlets pay what. The NWU, comprising about 1,200 dues-paying authors and journalists, is attempting a more systemic approach. It’s filed pay grievances against Ebony and other outlets, and it’s pursuing agreements with publishers that set minimum rates for freelance work. The broader question—both in media and a digital economy where freelancing is increasingly the norm—is whether basic principles of organized labor can be applied to a scattered group not covered by laws that enshrine collective bargaining.

“You cannot escape the law,” said Maria Figueroa, the labor and policy research director at the Worker Institute at Cornell University. “Because unions used to organize in these large manufacturing plants with a large concentration of workers, the laws were designed for that kind of setting....Now, workers are more spread out, and they increasingly work for multiple employers.”

These temporary or “contingent” workers are by nature difficult to count. The Government Accountability Office estimated in 2015 that they could comprise upward of one-third of all American workers, depending on the definition used. But even conservative estimates suggest this slice of the labor force has grown dramatically over the past decade.

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The Freelancers Union is perhaps the most notable advocate for this cohort, creating a grant-funded health insurance company that in 2013 covered 23,000 contract workers in New York State alone. “‘It reminds me of the old guilds’—the precursors of modern-day labor unions—‘that focused on workers’ individual autonomy, trying to build their own careers, with the backing of a collective organization to assist them,’” Rutgers University Professor Janice R. Fine told The New York Times at the time. In 2014, however, the organization ended its insurance program in New York due to effects of the Affordable Care Act.

There has been some similar movement elsewhere depending largely on local politics. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has long been able to negotiate with city agencies. And the ride-hailing app Uber supported a union-backed effort for its New York contractors to create the Independent Drivers Guild, though the joint effort has raised suspicions among some labor activists. Last year, a “Freelance Isn’t Free” law targeting nonpayment of New York contract workers went into effect. In Seattle, meanwhile, a federal judge blocked a first-in-the nation law that would have allowed Uber and Lyft drivers in the city to unionize.

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Organized labor’s recent efforts in the media industry have largely focused on newsrooms, from Gizmodo Media Group to the Los Angeles Times. At Ebony, freelancers like AJ Springer began discussing back pay in both private groups and through public campaigning, most notably the #EbonyOwes hashtag. Springer and others joined the National Writers Union after the Chicago-based magazine continued missing payments payments despite outcry from individual writers.

“Had I continued to operate as an island and not reached out to fellow freelancers to talk about payment, I may not have found the NWU,” said Springer, who was initially owed about $1,700. “By the point the stories started breaking you realized this wasn’t a one-off, it was going much deeper. It very much felt like myself and other writers were being exploited.”

Screenshot: Nautilus

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The settlement announced this week, which puts Ebony on a payment plan through the rest of the year, came months after the NWU and its UAW lawyers sued. The sum came without interest, but it’s guaranteed by Ebony’s parent company, QVC, in case the famed publication of black culture is shuttered.

The organization announced a similar agreement in early February with Nautilus magazine, a science publication, over $50,000 in back wages for roughly 20 writers, and it’s currently seeking about $20,000 more on behalf of six writers for Uptown magazine in New York. “We go in there, and once we organize a core group of writers that show confidence in the union, we notify the publisher,” Goldbetter said.

The NWU has also begun approaching individual publications to ward off such issues entirely. The first such deal, reached with The Nation in September, sets base pay rates of 10 cents a word for opinion pieces and 25 cents a word for reported work. Those aren’t great—they’re called minimums for a reason—but they do come with an agreed-upon 30-day window for payment. The NWU will take any grievances to the American Arbitration Association. “That’ll be the test,” Goldbetter added.

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The lefty magazine is low-hanging fruit for such an agreement. A better measure of the NWU’s efforts will be whether it can forge similar deals with larger companies that have unionized newsrooms—like Gizmodo Media Group—and if it can bolster its ranks even as the law and the media economy are stacked against it.

“I don’t want it to be that the union only grows when people get fucked over,” said David Hill, an NWU vice president and freelance writer for The Ringer and other publications. “We’re offering solidarity...What’s happening to those Ebony writers one day could be me the next.”