Freelancers Union Gather At MMI
A meeting of the Freelancers Union, held last week at the Museum of the Moving Image, welcomed City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer, one of the chief supporters of the #FreelanceIsntFreeBill, which has been before the council since December. A number of freelance workers were there for the main part of the meeting, exchanging vital information that freelancers must know. This included the strong warning that they must become familiar with contract language, to prevent being ill-treated by their clients, or temporary employers. Some of that treatment comes in the form of withholding payments for a long time after work has been completed and submitted, or even choosing not to pay at all.
Van Bramer was struck by the number of artists and writers in the room, though artists and writers are always a significant part of a typical gathering of freelancers. Such gatherings may become less typical in years to come, according to Sara Horowitz, who founded Freelancers Union in the mid-1990s. She told the meeting that while freelancers formerly could be classified as a niche group, they are now one-third of the workforce in America and growing.
If such a large amount of work is being done by non-employees, they need to become better rooted. Being only occasionally attached to employers, they are in a position to be taken for granted or exploited, if not disregarded. Van Bramer said the bill calls for specific rules for clients in their relationships with temporarily hired workers. He said that the #FreelanceIsntFreeBill, whose legislative parent is Brooklyn City Councilman Brad Lander, currently has the backing of 33 of the council’s 51 members and looks likely to pass.
The bill initially mandates that there be a contract between client and freelancer. It aims to give the freelancer a stronger position than before when dealing with a client. Any contract must state the scope of the work, the rate and method of payment and its due date. The client, not the freelancer, must accept the burden of having a contract. Timely payment is required and cannot be lessened as an exchange for faster delivery of it. Payment must be received by the freelancer within 30 days of the task’s completion and delivery to the client. A lawsuit can be brought against a client who does not provide a contract or is late to pay or simply refuses to. A clause in the bill states that a client cannot threaten retaliation against anyone who sues over such delinquency.
Clients who persist in dead-beating on compensation are subject to court action, the bill further says. If a judge rules in favor of a freelancer, the client is responsible for the freelancer’s legal bill, in addition to being fined twice the value of the disputed payment. Clients who knowingly and willfully engage in unlawful payment practices specified in the bill are subject to a criminal misdemeanor charge.
When comments were called for, one person said she liked the 30-day payment rule, though in fact she wished it shorter. Another, a musician and writer, said that abuse of musicians is rife, as he found out early and often. “I was very naïve and I was trusting,” he said. One consequence is that he suffered a five-year ordeal trying to get out of a contract. He said he’s more informed on legal matters now: “I had to teach myself law.” JustRaymona, a fashion stylist and designer, was emphatic that freelancers acquire such wisdom as the musician did, saying that in effect, the bill gets it backwards and the burden is actually on freelancers, who must do research on any work they undertake. One man said that labor contracts are his specialty (“I go through them every day”). He’s found that freelancers tend to have a sketchy idea of contracts, which amounts to flawed preparation that can ultimately damage or ruin weeks or months of their labor. He advised freelancers to give clients their due. He told them, be as sure as you can be about what they expect of you and what you intend to do for them.
That way, you can be on an even footing, which is especially good if things go bad and you and they wind up in court.
Visitors at the meeting proposed a few ideas that might be good for Freelancers Union members. A buyers’ club was one; also, a “lateral think tank,” not based on top-down wisdom; and educational services for current and future freelancers. This last proposal assumes that the freelance labor force will continue to grow. Those joining it must be informed how they should be prepared, through such communicative means as a roster of speakers to college groups, since college graduates are bound to be seeking a huge share of freelancing assignments.
A final proposal was to approach corporations to establish interaction between them and freelancers, a sort of collective bargaining that would determine work rules similar to those that may soon be put into law for local workers by the City Council.