Oct 31, 2013
It was one of the proudest moments in CWA Canada's history: A media union victoriously stood up for hundreds of non-members who cherish their independence but were being victimized because of it.
Last November, Amber Nasrulla was pitching a story to an editor at Transcontinental (TC Media), publisher of more than 30 magazines. It was something she had done many times over the previous 10 years. But that relationship came to a screeching halt when she was informed she would have to sign a new contract.
She was aghast at what she read and sought counsel from another professional. She was referred to Derek Finkle, founder of the Canadian Writers Group (CWG), for his assessment of the document, which demanded full copyright and waiver of moral rights with no additional compensation. It was non-negotiable. Finkle proclaimed it draconian and advised her not to sign it.
She didn't. Instead, she went public about it – anonymously at first – after Finkle put her in touch with an editor of TheStoryboard.ca, a website for independent content creators that grew out of a unique alliance forged in 2010 between Finkle's agency and the Canadian Media Guild (CMG), which has long had a Freelance Branch that bargains a collective agreement for contractors who perform work for the CBC.
The alliance was funded by the CMG's parent union, CWA Canada, which had resolved to extend the benefits of membership to all freelancers and student journalists who were contending with the growing scourge of unpaid internships.
The CMG has led the way in advocating for independent content creators on issues such as copyright, rates, digital and re-use rights. This was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate to thousands of the country's freelancers that, while they could not avail themselves of collective bargaining, they could use the power of the collective to get a fair contract.
In March, CMG set up a Facebook page (Back Off, Elle and Canadian Living publisher) where freelancers could share information and connect with one another. Word began to spread among writers, photographers and illustrators that a media union was preparing to do battle on their behalf.
CMG sent a letter to Ted Markle, president of TC Media, seeking a meeting to discuss the new freelancer contract. He declined the invitation. But it was Markle's letter to the CMG that convinced Nasrulla to reveal her identity as the whistleblower. Nasrulla wrote that she had come to believe that "it's crucial to stand up, speak the truth, and be counted."
To help the freelancers do just that, the Guild and Finkle's CWG formed a coalition with the Quebec Association of Independent Journalists, the Professional Writers Association of Canada, The Writers' Union of Canada, the Canadian Association of Professional Image Creators and the Canadian Freelance Union to put pressure on the publisher to withdraw or revise the contract.
Letters were written to TC Media and a federal minister about the fact that the company receives some $8 million a year from Heritage Canada's Periodical Fund, yet puts the squeeze on freelancers who could barely earn a living even before the contentious contract was introduced.
By mid-April, there was an indication that TC Media was succumbing to the pressure. Freelancers in Quebec were being told they would not be required to sign the new contract. The CMG learned that a new draft of the agreement was being prepared.
Soon word came that TC Media was circulating a new contract to freelancers in Quebec. According to a report in Le Devoir, the French agreement allows contributors in Quebec to retain both their copyright and their moral rights.
The CMG said it was cautiously optimistic, but would reserve judgment until the English version of the contract was available for scrutiny. "Having the weight of a union behind us is terrific," declared Nasrulla, who was about to become CWA Canada's newest member.