This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.
Sooner or later it will happen.
Every working freelancer will eventually confront employer demands so egregious, so patently unfair, that they will be forced to draw a line in the sand and say “no.”
Most of us are hesitant to do so for fear of the consequences.
I am here to argue that the power it gives you will set you free – and that is worth far more than any imaginable so-called consequences.
Like many of you, I have been offered freelance working conditions in radio, television, film, print and online that seemed patently unfair but that I was afraid to reject. I wanted to work.
I can even recall contracts requiring me to surrender all my rights forever, in any medium ever to be invented, in any jurisdiction ever inhabited by man.
Once I was so taken aback by the audacity of this robber baron-esque mentality that I called the corporate lawyers.
“Do you mean that if man ever gets to other planets, I’ve given up all rights to all my work that might be enjoyed there”?
“Correct” came the slightly embarrassed but legally-justified and self-satisfied reply. My heirs and their (no doubt Martian) heirs would be entitled to nada, zip, nothing.
I conferred with colleagues and found they were equally appalled. But it was a fight for another day, they all said.
So I swallowed hard, and reluctantly – perhaps even despairingly – signed and gave it all away.
But I was also aware that a clock within me was ticking.
Tick tick tick…
Every time we accept a less than equitable contract it encourages corporate overlords to take away a bit more the next time.
We almost guarantee that things will never get better for us or our fellow freelancers.
So eventually I became something I never thought I would become – a joiner.
I joined relevant guilds and unions – memberships that I had previously shunned due to my misguided notion of what it meant to be a courageously independent contractor.
I read up on contracts and collective agreements in various geographical jurisdictions. I decided to take proactive responsibility for my freelancer status.
Tick tick tick…
One day I was offered a freelance contract that contained a clause with impenetrable language.
I was advised to sign and carry on working.
But I had learned early on never to agree to anything you don’t understand. (Which to my mind is much worse than agreeing to conditions you understand but may deplore.) To sign something you don’t understand is an act of plain stupidity. Everything in a contract has a reason. If it is written to be impenetrable there is likely something being hidden that’s worth discovering.
So I did some research on my own.
By contacting fellow freelancers in foreign jurisdictions, I figured out that the incomprehensible language was actually an attempt to grab rights money from foreign governments that was rightfully meant for me.
The language had been inserted in many foreign contracts. It had been condemned by unions abroad as both illegal and an immoral attempt to usurp revenue never intended for corporate coffers.
And now it seemed the corporation for which I freelanced was trying to surreptitiously slip it into all their new contracts too.
The alarm went off in my head
This, to me, was so duplicitous, so blatantly amoral, that it became my line in the sand.
I pointed out the reality of the situation to my union representative, who was equally appalled. But there was nothing the union could do if everyone accepted the new conditions.
The day of reckoning had arrived. I decided not to sign. Damn the consequences.
This was bad news for the corporation. Based upon our previous working relationship, they had assumed I would unhesitatingly accept the new clause and so had proceeded with production of my script without checking to see if the contract had been signed.
It had not. And would not be.
They were not happy.
For once they knew how I felt.
For several months I (and others) refused to sign. Of course, it also meant we were not paid.
In the end, my union representative had the offending clause struck from the contract. I signed, got paid and – as had been subtly and not-so-subtly threatened – never worked for that corporation again. But I didn’t care. The feeling of freedom was worth it a million times over. I soon made up the loss in income elsewhere with much more rewarding opportunities.
Much more importantly, the relevant union – now alert to the danger and the precedence – ensured that the offending clause was removed from all future contracts forever.
Fellow freelancers might never know who had fallen on the grenade for them, but they would benefit from my decision – as I had no doubt benefited from similar decisions taken by unknown freelancers before me. When you look at the history of collective bargaining, you can see that this has always been so.
Would I do it all over again? In a heartbeat.
I have written previously on this site about how the late legendary Canadian media icon Max Ferguson drew his line in the sand and was prepared to walk away from the CBC in order to gain major concessions in his employment relationship. It is a relevant case study worth rereading and always inspires me whenever I think about him.
Many unions post a list on their sites or publications with a title like “Unfair Employers.” I would urge any creative collective which doesn’t already do so to consider creating such a resource for their freelancers.
I would also encourage any impacted freelancers to use such resources to spread the word about any insupportable conditions of employment they have encountered.
Or should that be “the walk away”?
Only by being prepared to publicly walk away can we freelancers ever hope to achieve contractual fairness.
It is frightening to contemplate, especially if you have failed to develop multiple revenue streams (a must!) and everyone is urging you to just “suck it up” and accept that which you know to be unacceptable.
It’s impossible to prepare for the day you will choose to draw your line in the sand. It will be for different reasons for different people. But you will instinctively know deep inside. How you choose to proceed will potentially impact you and others for years to come.
Will it always result in an ideal outcome? Of course not. It is a last choice “nuclear option” when faced with unacceptable demands. But if more of us were less afraid to use it publicly when faced with unconscionable greed we might have to face such situations less frequently in future.
If walking away is our “nuclear option,” the alternative “conventional weapons option” is to band collectively together to improve our lot as working freelancers. I strongly urge you to consider joining a relevant guild or union even if you don’t see immediate benefits. If you join, they will come.
Byzantine corporate entities use our fear and our lack of unity to impose unsatisfactory terms and conditions in our contracts. Take away that fear (and lack of unity) and it makes getting away with unscrupulous behaviour that much harder.
Got a story about when you walked away? Or maybe when you wish you had? Share it with us in the comments.
You can now contact the author directly with questions for a future post. Email: thebornfreelancer [at] gmail [dot] com.
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