Labour Studies Index

Negotiating precarious cultural work: Freelance writers and collective organization in media industries

Document type Thesis
Author Cohen, Nicole S.
Degree Ph.D., Communication and Culture
Publisher York University; Toronto
Date 2013
Pages 398

Abstract

Commentary on freelance work in the cultural industries suggests that freelancers are autonomous "free agents" who enjoy fulfilling work and control over their careers. Yet empirical research demonstrates that freelance media work is becoming increasingly precarious. This dissertation is a case study of the working conditions of Canadian freelance writers, the political economic and cultural context in which they work, and their efforts to organize collectively to address challenges they face. The dissertation examines the underlying processes, practices, and power relations that shape the work of freelance writing to argue that freelancers' experiences flow directly from the capitalist logic of the corporate cultural industries in which they work. In this view, freelance writing has been transformed from being primarily a strategy of resisting salaried labour by journalists—an effort to gain some control over the terms of commodification of their labour power and autonomy over their craft—into a strategy for media firms to intensify exploitation of freelance writers' labour power through two primary strategies: the exploitation of unpaid labour time and control of copyright to writers' works. Drawing on Marxist political economic analysis, a survey of Canadian freelance writers, and interviews with freelance writers' unions and organizations, the dissertation examines how exploitation is obscured in freelance cultural work and how it can be confronted through collective organization. The dissertation examines Canadian freelance writers' current organizing efforts: a professional association, a union, and an agency-union hybrid, arguing that the models freelancers favour tend to reinforce notions of professionalism and a preference for service-based organizations, which has not given freelancers the power required to effectively defend themselves against corporations' changing business practices. The dissertation outlines the challenges writers' organizations need to overcome, not least freelance writers' ambivalence toward their status as workers. Finally, the dissertation foregrounds labour processes as central to understanding media, suggesting that continual downloading of the risks of journalistic labour onto precarious workers will have implications for the future of freelance writing as an occupation and the media content produced.