Articles - 16th May 2019

Can unions support freelancers?

Words by Selin Yasar
Illustration by Will Francis

Freelancers are particularly isolated, and this can make them more vulnerable to social and economic insecurity. An alarming report published by Co-operatives UK shows that 77% of self-employed people live in poverty. Struggling with the tax system, chasing late invoices, seeking legal advice, dreading those unpaid sick days, who do freelancers turn to when they need help with these issues?

(Overly?) Traditional unions

When online women’s magazine The Pool closed earlier in February, its staff and freelancers had not been paid for their work in January. Freelance journalist Sarah Graham contacted the National Union of Journalists, of which she is a member. “They were brilliant about writing to the editors, and then talking me through the legal options,” she says. Graham joined the NUJ as a student and had used their freelance rates guide before, but it was her first time asking for their support. “I joined because I believe in the value of unions in terms of protecting workers’ rights – particularly as a freelancer where you can feel quite isolated and insecure” she explains.

Just like Sarah Graham, other freelancers have joined the few unions which offer support for self-employed people. Membership usually includes legal support, discounted insurance or tax advice. Unions are also powerful enough to lobby in parliament and have experience defending workers’ rights.

However, with membership at an all-time low, unions seem to be struggling to recruit new workers and freelancers in particular as freelancers tend to think unions only help employees in the workplace. While freelancing is growing and evolving rapidly, unions may be taking too long to adapt. Self-employed people are becoming ever-more diverse in terms of the industries they work in, the amounts of money they earn, their levels of qualifications, and where they work: on site, at home or in between. Representing this diversity poses challenges.

Adrian Ashton, through his work as a freelance Enterprise Consultant, has often dealt with unions and has been left on many occasions feeling underwhelmed. “I’ve had involvements with different unions as part of formal consultations with clients, and also informally with friends who have wanted some additional support – in all those instances, I seemed to know more about the role and powers of each Union better than their representatives”, he says. In Ashton’s opinion, there would be many advantages for freelancers in uniting as a political force, but probably not as unions.

The rise of co-operatives

Some freelancers have found support in co-operatives and trade associations which offer very similar benefits to unions. The internal structures are often smaller, allowing them to adapt more quickly to their members’ needs. “I’m a member of YBC networking community. It’s not a union but membership gives you access to free legal advice, certain insurances and a whole host of other benefits. I was able to exhibit at the Business Show this year for a very reasonable cost, and I have taken advantage of the free legal helpline”, says Social Media Consultant Renée Wallen.

Co-operatives and associations have similar interests to unions but they fear that being labelled as such will put people off. They also lobby to improve self-employed people’s rights and reduce their administrative burden and sometimes do so by working with unions.

Something old, something new

For Les Bayliss, National Officer for the Union Community, the best support structure for freelancers is neither unions nor co-operatives but both working together. In a bid to reach out to self-employed people, especially those with lower incomes, Community started a partnership with co-operative Indycube last year. They already have 1,000 members. Bayliss advocates that the first step to help freelancers is to recognise that the co-operative movement is part of the trade union movement.

Mark Hooper founded Indycube as a co-working space about 8 years ago in Cardiff. He was self-employed himself and missed sharing an office with colleagues. Indycube has now several spaces in Wales and opened one in London last year. Wanting to offer more benefits to its members, Indycube joined with Community. The partnership combines the union experience of Community and Indycube’s knowledge of freelancing. “It’s important that the team members at Indycube have all worked as freelancers themselves, because it means we know the trials and tribulations that indie workers face every day, from managing childcare to difficult clients and the struggle of late payments,” explains Mari Ellis Dunning, Indycube’s Head of Communication. The partnership aims to offer benefits that will suit anyone that is self-employed regardless of their sector. “We’ve been learning a lot going through this process”, acknowledges Bayliss.

Self-employed people number 4.8 million, totalling around 15% of the UK workforce. There is a need to have their interests represented in national policy-making and improve their working conditions. The solution to this might be unions working more closely with co-operatives to develop a stronger voice. 

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