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We Don't Work For You If We Don't Work For You
On the boundaries of freelance employment.
On Monday, the journalists Jazmine Hughes and Jamie Lauren Keiles appeared on “Democracy Now” to talk about how and why each of them had resigned from—it might be more accurate to say “had been forced out of”—positions writing for the New York Times, after they both signed a public letter expressing solidarity with the people of Gaza. Hughes was a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine, and Keiles was a contributor—a regular freelancer. Their cases have been discussed a lot already, but I want to focus here on one particular issue that Keiles raised in that interview.
“Jazmine’s a staffer for the magazine but I’m a contributor, which means I don’t have benefits, I don’t have any kind of protections. So that’s how most of the journalism in our industry is currently being produced in this moment, by contingent laborers,” he said. “There’s this bigger question of: If an institution is not willing to give you a job, then what do you owe them?”
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Yes. Let us for a moment not dive all the way into the red-faced cancel culture/ Israel/ Gaza arguments and look at the very relevant point that Keiles touched on there. As Keiles said with great clarity, this is a labor question. And not a small one. One of the most widespread and impactful labor trends of this century is the steady effort of companies to push full-time jobs off their books and replace them with freelance jobs. This frees companies from paying benefits and it freezes workers out of the legal ability to unionize and generally it is a great deal for employers to exactly the same extent that it is a bad deal for workers. It is this trend that has fueled the rise of the “gig economy,” which is, in aggregate, a scam that guts worker power and increases the profits of companies and undermines America’s entire 20th-century social contract. If you pull back far enough you can see that the same basic trend that spawned Uber and makes Amazon claim that its delivery drivers do not work for Amazon has also turned every college professor into an adjunct and replaced full-time staff writer jobs in journalism with an endless buffet of freelance writing where you do the same amount of work for much less income. The mechanisms vary from industry to industry, but at its heart this is one big wave of employers trying to push every last possible task into the “independent contractor” column. The “workers love flexibility!” lie is a paltry attempt to put a pretty face on the fact that those same workers would love to have full time jobs instead, but they can’t find them.
What do you owe an institution that is not willing to give you a job? More importantly, what should you owe them?
The short answer is: You owe them the work in question, and before and after that they can fuck off. It is very important for all of us to police these boundaries. Every time an employer tries to attach conditions to freelance work that extend beyond the quality of the work itself, they are trying to snatch something that they have not paid for. They are trying to shoplift your life. There is a robust debate to be had about what conditions a media company can impose on its employees in the name of Stuff You Can’t Do Because You Are a Reporter—every media critic has written gobs of words about this question, including me—but that is a debate about what companies can demand of employees. It is a debate that is properly settled in the pages of a union contract. Here, though, we are talking about people who are not employees. When Jamie Lauren Keiles or Hamilton Nolan or anyone else writes a freelance story for a publication, the publication does not give us health insurance or an office or a regular salary or, crucially, the legal right to be covered by that union contract that spells out how these things work for full time employees. No. You write they story and they give you a (small) check. That’s it. It is no different from hiring a plumber to come over and unclog your drain. If you were to call the plumber and say, “Before you come unclog my drain, can you tell me your position on Gaza?”, the reasonable response from the plumber would probably be, “fuck off.”
Indeed, this example helps to illustrate the fact that by imposing conditions on what freelancers can do outside of work, the New York Times is not actually engaging in the familiar act of setting employment standards. (After all, there are no employees in this equation.) They are engaged in a boycott. The company is effectively the consumer of the labor of the freelancer, and they are unilaterally deciding not to buy from people they don’t like, for whatever reason. You, as a consumer, are free to decide that you will boycott any plumber who does not share your political opinions, or who is not of a certain race, or whose sign is not blue. But we are also free to observe that this may be an indication that you are deranged. The New York Times, in this example, is a consumer of services deciding that they will boycott anyone whose publicly declared political opinions stray outside of the lines of what is deemed to be reasonable by the New York Times. And, as any journalist can tell you, this is actually how it works! And it is why not too many loud communists work at the New York Times, while plenty of loud normie Democrats do.
The pernicious thing is that the New York Times is trying to pretend that this political decision is not a political decision. Well, it is. The main reason why this discussion, in journalism circles, quickly becomes absurd is that media companies are addicted to the myth that what they do is rooted in some gauzy idea of objectivity, rather than in politics. (There was no better example of how ridiculous this game can get than the when the New York Times pushed out James Bennet, its opinion editor, after he published Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling on the government to “Send in the Troops” against Black Lives Matter protesters. The NYT was forced to cite “a significant breakdown in our editing processes” as its excuse, rather than just citing the fact that Bennet was a bad editor because he published a lot of stuff that sucked—a perfectly good reason to fire him!)
News organizations want to pretend that they stand outside of politics, which is like stepping onto a box and pretending that you no longer stand on planet Earth. It is very difficult to have an honest conversation about what is happening when the person you are talking to insists that they are an angel floating above the tawdry corporeal plane. But this myth is important to the self image of mainstream media companies, and so this charade will continue long after we are all dead.
From the perspective of workers, though, this is pretty simple. We must strenuously defend the principle that the purchase of freelance work does not buy you anything other than the freelance work. Companies that want to impose conditions of employment on people are free to do so—the first step is making those people employees. Until then, companies may go to hell. Unfortunately, it is very hard for freelancers to muster the collective power to defend themselves, which is the same reason why companies feel free to do this stuff in the first place. If America’s labor laws were not so hostile to the principle of independent contractors collectively bargaining, then freelancers could make companies sign contracts that clearly defined the boundaries of their relationship. As it is, freelancers are forced to tread lightly when speaking up for themselves, lest some editor take offense at their tone and decide not to throw them any more work. Organizations like the Freelance Solidarity Project have long tried to build power in this space, but it’s tough going. If you are any sort of freelance worker, every time you tell some client not to ask you for shit except what they hired you for, you are doing your own little part to advance the cause.
Until we reach the labor rights promised land, it would at least be nice if employers would speak more honestly. Just like the homeowner who will not hire a roofer who does not have a Trump bumper sticker on his truck, the New York Times could say: “We are an establishment-oriented centrist publication and we discriminate against those whose politics fall outside the bounds that we deem to be reasonable.” It’s the truth! Just say it! It is so goofy to act as though fundamentally political arguments are not political. We all know that the New York Times discriminates against certain groups of people in hiring—mostly against “People who do not have friends on staff at the New York Times.”
Watching idiot Oklahoma Senator Markwayne Mullin challenge Teamsters president Sean O’Brien to a fight during a subcommittee hearing the other day forces me to reiterate to all parties that Testosterone Poisoned Society is not good.
That reminds me to remind you that I also write about boxing, and one of my boxing essays is included in The Year’s Best Sportswriting 2023, a book now available for purchase that would make a good gift. What would make an even better gift, though, because I actually get paid for it, is my upcoming book “The Hammer,” a deeply reported look at the American labor movement, which is now available for preorder. Truly we are living in a time of unprecedented abundance, in terms of books on various topics.
Thank you very much to all of you thousands of weird people who subscribe to How Things Work. I hope that the column above has increased your concern for the plight of freelance journalists. Further, I hope that this newfound concern will cause you to decide to become a paid subscriber to How Things Work—it is the blessed paid subscribers who enable this site to exist, and me to buy food. Nothing irritates those stuffy bozos at the New York Times more than hearing that yet another reader has become a paid subscriber to this vibrant and wholly independent publication! Show em what’s what, my friends!