9 December 2020|Updated 14 Dec 20
In May this year I stepped for the first time, in a formal way, into the labor organizing world, joining the National Writers Union. I’m not primarily a writer at present (nor aim to be) and by and large in my working life haven’t had writing-centric roles as employee, so the NWU might seem a strange fit. There’s a greater point of contradiction, though: I’m self-employed, a freelancer, and unions don’t offer representation to freelancers in the U.S. for the very good reason that our labor laws bar collective bargaining, with just about no exception, to people who aren’t regular company employees. The conceit given expression and application in fairly uniform terms by way of this body of law, of course, is that the self-employed person is a business, not a worker, and is free of the burden of conventional labor relations by choice. Underlying this codified understanding are assumptions that have been proving themselves hollow for some time now (as, for instance, California’s massive, disappointing ‘Prop 22’ fight this year may serve to illustrate). Last year, the NWU responded to the efforts mainly of a lot of journalists trying to survive in their field in a period when media companies — news operations especially — are shedding jobs much faster than they’re getting added elsewhere, and the Freelance Solidarity Project was born. I should note that there was here in the States already an org called the Freelancer’s Union. It’s a sort of trade association of indeterminate classification in reality, not a labor union. (They would be, by the way, very interested in talking about your insurance needs.) This sort of underscores the point. What the NWU’s made room for, in supporting this FSP group’s concern with labor rights and action, is something new, a really interesting move on uncertain ground.
The FSP marked a milestone a few days ago with announcement of a statement of commitment from The Intercept to certain ground rules for their dealings with independent reporters.
It’s ‘unilateral,’ if I understand what’s meant by the slightly wonky wording there, in that although it is very much the fruit of a lot of effort of FSP working-group members on behalf of everybody who stands to benefit from such commitments, themselves obviously included, it isn’t an agreement, a joint statement. It’s the publisher’s statement. The expectation is that this one will be followed by others, similarly composed, from companies FSP folks are likewise talking with. (See Dec. 14 update below.) You get a nice sense here, I think, both of the considerable potential for change in this moment of media-biz upset and of the tempering of ambition and the long-range vision required of those who mean to take advantage of it.
How my particular interests as a worker might be served through having a part in this organizing isn’t entirely clear to me right now, and that’s okay. Membership is open to people working in media in any capacity, basically — a category I fall into, if a bit at the margins. I’ve always cared about doing good work, or the idea of it anyway, first of all; I’ve always wanted to be part of businesses and groups that were about that. Over the years — in the course of my less than illustrious career in construction, home improvements, and ‘home energy,’ first — I’ve come steadily to greater appreciation of the intricate ecosystemic dynamics that give rise to our doing, such as we do, good work. With that has come, gradually, interest in labor organizing and its long failure in U.S. and anglosphere contexts. In economies as we know them today, modern money-transaction-hegemonized and corporation-structured economies, there’s no possibility of health — by which I mean a situation where human activity indeed takes care of things, is care-taking, our consuming and our working belonging in the world rather than spinning out in uncontained compounding of exhaustions and waste — without real labor solidarity and representation. That seems plain to me. And since where I stand, as an American and a ‘media worker,’ labor solidarity and representation are for very long essentially MIA, I’m grateful for an opening to get involved.
I came across the FSP by way of keeping an eye as much on the illustration profession and comics publishing as on journalists and their business. There’s overlap between these areas of media industry, naturally — story serialization and strip-style cartooning having first emerged from newspapers, of course, for one thing. The comics world in American-culture-dominated form in particular has an interesting, if not very consequential, history of struggle between publishers and its diverse class of ‘creator’ freelancers (some fraction of whom attain a certain level of celebrity and/or work in lucrative ways cross-medium, complicating things considerably). I’m a long way from any thorough appreciation of that history or the significance of recent calls to #unionizecomics in it, but am watching with interest as some people working in these areas begin to find the FSP now. Interested as I am in seeing what comes of labor-side rumblings and murmurings of the moment, though, comics fascinates because the whole scene, this fertile little ‘industry’ in all its aspects together, is at once so lively and adaptive (enjoying steady sales growth little diminished even with 2020’s economy-wide hardships) and so vulnerable to capitalistic predation and upheaval. It’s been something to try to follow news of the comics world this year. (That I’m not a big consumer — as the friendly folks at my neighborhood shop can attest — and never an attender of ‘cons,’ &c., doesn’t help me in that regard.) I am not going to attempt to summarize recent twists and turns. What I would like to do here, though, is to take note of the sensitivity to what I call above ‘intricate ecosystemic dynamics’ that this peculiar trade, or at any rate the U.S.-birthed form with its eight-decades-long devotion-inducing permanent fever-dream of teenage sex and monster-men in tights, tends to engender throughout its ranks. 2020 is a good year for observing it. Just at the moment, I have in mind especially the conversation veteran show hosts MacDonald, Reid and Fitzsimons have with veteran Bay Area shop owner Brian Hibbs in the most recent episode of Publishers Weekly’s comics podcast, making sense as well as they can of trouble at DC — the home of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and other characters that from the point of view of the executives determining its fate as a publisher are with them a nice inventory of valuable properties. DC’s remaining or failing to remain a publisher in the usual sense of the word has serious implications for a lot of smaller players and livelihoods in its industry neighborhood. Conditions of its ownership appear to mean that its profitability as a publisher doesn’t factor very importantly, for executives concerned, in decisions its eventual fate, or shape rather, depends on. People downstream are nervous not because sales aren’t good — they are — but because the business they’re doing seems increasingly not to matter back up the chain. Here the system lacks a meaningful feedback circuit, evidently.
Hibbs, the comics retailer there, is firmly positioned among the nervous, but he’s far at the same time from looking for a total collapse of the media market he operates in. He does see a possible future in which AT&T / Warner and Disney, owners of dominant publishers DC and Marvel respectively, harm the infrastructure of sales to an extent that would make recovery for most very small businesses like his, integral to it, impossible. He also sees a possible future — and signs of movement already toward it — in which smaller players take opportunity where they find it, illuminated by circumstances like those this year has brought, to build up their capacity for freedom from ‘corporate masters,’ favoring instead, and enhancing the value in, business relationships in which they’re on more equal terms. Here, in spite of the different languages used and differences in kind of obstacles immediately in view, I think there’s fruitful comparison to be made between the more or less optimistic attitude of comics tradespeople represented by Hibbs, with the problem they’re squaring up to as the 2020 moment presents it, and the challenges looming and attitude adopted that small-scale Virginia farmer Chris Newman made himself something of a face for in an item at the Mark Bittman-edited food blog Heated last year. True, the two markets don’t have much in common. But if a tiny land-holder producer like Newman can talk in concrete, historically grounded terms about peer businesses organizing cooperatively to resist the tremendous forces arrayed against operations like his, surely the sort of creators, agents, sellers, and so on who manage to keep their footing in the always turbulent comics game can discover paths for doing so too. I don’t know of anything happening in that way yet, though.
Media business in the U.S. has, in fact, something of a history in cooperative organization. The Associated Press, institutionally important to news today as ever, is a mid-nineteenth-century cooperative in origin. Now, it’s a cooperative whose members at origin were predecessors of today’s media behemoths, and as it exists, as far as I’m aware, it’s no check on any level to corporation-channeled concentration of power. It’s agriculture co-op history that offers more of interest, all around, to small producers seeking to preserve self-determination. Ag co-op history also offers lots of lessons in losing your edge and ceding power unnecessarily (hence Virginia farmer Newman’s project, in some degree reinventing the wheel). A big issue throughout cooperative-building history, actually: forgetting the point, to greater or lesser extent, perhaps a generation on, of all that trouble taken to take back power and build new institutions. But at present we’re in a time of change, and with or without deep consideration of precedents, things are in the works. The development I know of most in the spirit of the business-level resistance I’m concerned with here, Brick House, launches officially today (a little behind plan), coincidentally, following the group’s successful crowdfund effort a few months ago. In structure, Brick House looks in a rough way like a tiny-scale version of the nineteenth-century AP. As mutual aid society for publications, though, it’s less about exploiting opportunity, the first (wartime) AP’s mission, than about members’ hopes of maintaining independence, journalistically and otherwise, in an economically hostile environment. Closely resonating, elsewhere this year, and in certain respects the more remarkable, widely in discussion in mainstream and media-biz press: a slew of staff who’d quit the vulture-capital-acquired Deadspin en masse turned around, got together and resurrected their employment, months later, as collectively owned and democratically governed Defector, with near-instantaneous success, measured in subscription sales.
Though it appears in essentials to be one, Defector doesn’t call itself a cooperative, and buzz around it tends to focus on the revenue question rather than on ownership and governance. Brick House does foreground its cooperativist ideals, by contrast, but press attention attracted again seems to lean toward revenue matters. Alongside and several years in advance of emergence of these group-owned publishing ventures and whatever in their general kind may follow, there is of course a related trend, likewise much discussed, identified mainly with digital platforms Patreon and Substack. (I’m aware of one Substack-based project remade close on the heels of Defector’s launch and on the pattern of its option for a WordPress-based site built with Lede. Undoubtedly there’ll be others.) Throwing these into one box on revenue-model basis, newly emergent Brick Houses or Defectors together with ‘patronage’-style platform-hosted projects, is natural enough, but it’s a good way to miss some of what’s going on, too. One of the feature pieces in Columbia Journalism Review’s current change-themed issue, ‘The Substackerati’ — written by fellow Freelance Solidarity Project member (but also original forward-thinking crew of its leadership last year) Clio Chang — offers some invitation to explore less-than-obvious difficulties attending shift of perhaps some sizable chunk of media workforce capacity — talent and labor — over to digital-network hosts which, with echoes of major social platforms’ recent squirrelly attempts at public positioning, start to find it necessary to issue denials that they’re themselves media businesses, that they’ve assumed aspects of the publisher role. And, in short, I’ve sort of wound my way back around here, through a different door, to the matter of disorganized and perpetually embattled labor. The conceit that the self-employed person is a business isn’t just conceit, naturally, it’s a fair way to represent how things work. But the truth behind that is that modern market- and financial-system-centric economy makes everybody a business in some sense — certainly everyone who works — regardless of formal employment status. Putting it another way: the worker / employer divide, too, is conceit — the more fundamental conceit — and under the conditions so set up (excluding those situations where the thing’s so far degraded that labor is compelled by mere force, as for instance it was for most Black Americans in our slavery economy, or is for many today in our prison systems), the working person is never really free of either the labor-relations burden or the capital-at-risk, business-mindset burden. If we were just, y’know, a little better at acknowledging this — businesses better equipped to recognize their own dilemmas in the worker’s, workers theirs in businesses’ — I think we might prove better too at avoiding becoming suckers, individually and societally, for digital platform companies with a new twist on the trick of selling folks the promise of freedom through work, say.
Not that a digital-network platform mightn’t be a useful tool in workers’ pursuit of such economic independence and self-determination as one can hope to enjoy under the terms of our ever more nearly fully globalized liberal modernity. It might! That idea is part of the platform cooperativists’ vision, at any rate. I’ve learned a good deal, gradually over a few years now, through following some of that movement’s exponents. A little earlier this year I got wind of a (not yet launched) project in this vein called Comradery, which aims directly at the needs of the crowd-patronage seeker. It’s designed to give users not only a percentage of the money take their work draws, like Patreon or Substack, but ownership rights in the platform itself as well. Users are members. This is the platform cooperativism idea in as straightforward an application as I’m aware has been developed. It’s only one of a great diversity of digital co-op schemes springing up all over the world, though. The really revelatory thing here is the exploration, realized in this burgeoning field of projects, of all the ways our economies have come to discover human lives parcelable and convertible for marketplace exchange — ways a human life’s value to itself today stands in need of economic defense. It isn’t only in labor, we find, useful though the scratchy old lens of labor / capital divide remains, that we can be sold, can be induced to be sold. Well, maybe most of us never believed otherwise; but I’ll suggest even so that there’s a swell of recognition of the depths in this that amounts to something new, provoked perhaps especially by a generation of tech capitalists’ earnest belief in sucking value from every last exploitable notion of a thing, as their methods become examinable by, less mysterious to, an ever wider segment of global population.
And who knows, maybe a great human step forward in shared appreciation of the problem of work in the unnatural environments of modern economies is indeed afoot somehow. If so, I think we’d be able to observe it not only in people getting everywhere a bit smarter about what they’re willing to part with of themselves for pay (or the idea of some payment or payoff), even under some considerable pressure under law as surveillance-state-style strictures and intrusions advance, but also, conversely, in a sharpening of people’s sense of need to organize and be organized — as ‘union,’ as ‘company,’ &c., in economic life — and a heightened attunement to and intimacy with economic independence as paradox. I have in mind here a favorite versatile little operation in New York’s Solidarity Economy network, Radix Media, born out of Occupy as a small-run printer, since turned publisher, who established themselves from the outset, a handful of people, as employee-owned and run but also as unionized. Is it overkill, an overburdening, being both? I don’t think so. I’d say it represents something very clear-eyed concerning work, concerning the possibility — not lost to us, I’m confident — of work belonging in the world, the possibility of a recovery of work’s modesty. I’m keeping eyes open for turns like this, trying to understand the variety of forms and postures they might take, regarding them — I hope not naively — as signs of renewal.
update (Dec. 14) : The first publication to follow The Intercept in announcing FSP-facilitated commitment to fair-dealing principles, it turns out, is none other than Defector — up today.
Also published today: the FSP and the situation it arises in response to told from woman-and-minority standpoint.