Canadian Unions for Freelancers: An Introduction

Trends and Tools | Feb 24, 2017
Detroit Union March

A quick review of the Canadian labour landscape reveals a number of unions that organize and support Canadian freelancers. Some of these have been around for many years while others are more recent attempts by the labour movement to adapt to the increase in the number and types of self-employed people.

The list we’ve put together does not include traditional unions in the cultural industries such as ACTRA, IATSE, the Directors Guild, etc., even though people who work in these fields are also freelancers. We also don’t try to cover unions in the skilled trades such as electricians, plumbers, carpenters, etc. Finally, due to the sheer volume, we also don't review the myriad of professional associations that exist, such as the Hairstylists Association, the Canadian Culinary Association, the Yoga Alliance and many others.

Below is our starter list and a brief description of unions that exist for freelancers in Canada.

1. Canadian Freelancers Union (UNIFOR)

Membership is open to everyone who identifies as a freelance worker in the media or information sector. For $125 per year members can get press cards as well as gain access to healthcare plans and insurances at reduced fees. They also can request support with writing contracts and problem clients,  post their services on a directory, participate in a members’ forum, and have access to a members’ job board.

2. Canadian Media Guild Freelance Branch (CMG)

Membership is open to media and information professionals, producers, technicians, craftspeople and creative workers from all areas of broadcasting, print, digital, audio visual and web media, marketing, communications, interpretation, translation, IT, entertainment, research and journalism. The CMG has represented freelancers who work with the CBC/Radio Canada under Article 30 of their long-standing collective agreement. This inclusion of self-employed workers into an employee-based labour agreement is an anomaly in Canadian labour law, and is an exceptional case for a labour union

For $150 per year members get advice and counsel from CMG staff on negotiations and contracts, receive the ‘Lancer (a members-only email forum to share leads on gigs and freelance tips),free online software training with Lynda.com for members and their families, and free or discounted professional development workshops in-person or via live webcasts, and access to group health, drug, dental, life and travel insurance. Members can also apply for a media credentials card via CMG.

3. GDC - Graphic Design

Founded in 1976, GDC is an organization of design professionals, educators, administrators, students and affiliates in communications, marketing, media and design-related fields. The nine chapters across Canada advocate for the advancement of the design profession. They provide certification for practicing designers and educators whose services meet CGD national standards.

For the annual $200 fees members get access to health care and error and omissions insurance, discounts on a range of tools and resources, a site to post their portfolios, access to a job board, and information about national design awards and more.

4. The Writers Union of Canada

This is the national organization of professionally published book authors. Founded in 1973 and now over 2,000 members strong, the union works with governments, publishers, booksellers, and readers to improve the conditions of Canadian writers.

Their goal is to promote the rights, freedoms, and economic well-being of all writers.

For the $200 annual fee ($100 for newcomers), members receive advocacy, assistance with resolving grievances and writing contracts, access to reading programs, union publications and the union’s magazine Write, a personal web page highlighting your accomplishments and provides information to interested parties regarding your reading fees and availability, professional development workshops through the On Words Conference, and eligibility to participate in a group healthcare benefit plans.

The Writers' Union of Canada also holds an annual literary award, Danuta Gleed Literary Award ($10,000) for best first collection of short fiction, and an annual writing competition: Short Prose Competition for Emerging Writers ($2500).

There are several other organizations for writers- both regional and national. We hope to explore more of these over time but if you're interested, here's a place to get started

5. Industrial Workers of the World

Communications, Computer, and Software Workers Industrial Union 560

If you search the topic of “developers and unions” there are plenty of opinions on why unions don’t attract developers. Many point to their relatively high pay and decent working conditions, the stereotype of geeks as loners, and the general decline of unions as the main reasons.

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) has bucked this conventional wisdom and formed a local for Computer and Software workers. This is the union of Noam Chomsky which has been around since 1905 with a rich history of left wing labour activism . Its mission is

            …Organizing on the job, in our industries and in our communities…to win better          conditions today and build a world with economic democracy tomorrow. We want our workplaces to run for the benefit of workers and communities rather than for a handful of bosses and executives.

Although seen as more of a “fringe” union in the shadow of the AFL-CIO, the IWW has a decentralized model. You can be a member of the IWW even if your company isn’t officially unionized. And you can actually be a member of both the IWW and another union. Importantly, this union emphasizes worker self-management over just cutting deals with management.

It’s tough to get info on the numbers of members in this local and it’s impact, if any, but we thought we should include it for any developers who might want to learn more.

There are many people who argue that making it easier for freelancers to unionize would reduce the job and income insecurity so frequently experienced. Others believe that the main benefits of unionizing are the mutual supports enabled through group action and buying power. While we intend to explore these questions further, we’d love to hear what you think - those of you that are members of one of these unions, and those that aren’t