Do bloggers need a union?

By Elisabeth Winkler

I am a union person.

I have belonged to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) for as long as I’ve been a freelance journalist.

The NUJ has got me out of a few scrapes over the past 20 years. Helped me claw back fee due from a national newspaper. Supported me when a publication dissed my rep.

I do not begrudge my union dues because they insure me for future grievances and in the meantime help some other poor bugger.

I know my history – without unions, workers would still be working a 12-hour day. (As many still do).

On the 22 and 23 October 2010, my local branch, the Bristol NUJ, asked: What’s the blogging story?

Research conducted for the union shows there are 20,000 workers in digital new media in the Bristol area.

Note: the term blogger here includes those creating online content.

As a union gal already paying union fees for my printed work, I would LOVE my online work to be covered too.

Several made the point that bloggers certainly help journalists: with their original and brave research, said Iqbal Tamimi; and with technical expertise, said Tomas Rawlings.

From a union’s point-of-view, thousands of unregulated online workers must be a dream. Both the NUJ’s fortune and its collective bargaining power would swell magnificently.

Mind you, some journalists are nervous of bloggers  – many of whom work for nothing. So bloggers could be seen as undermining the profession.

Leaving that underlying tension aside, I wondered as a blogger whether union membership – being accredited by a professional body – might give visitors more confidence in a site.

Visitors could clearly see I subscribe to the NUJ Code of Conduct (although there is nothing stopping any writer adhering to it, I found out).

However – said the devil’s advocate in my mind – is not the point of today’s web that a blog is authenticated by its comments and the transparency of the blogger?

And HOW would the NUJ assess who is a digital worker, especially if he/she is an unpaid blogger?

(There is a precedent for a blogger becoming an NUJ member.)

Bloggers are a notoriously independent breed. Does belonging to a union undermine that spirit?

In response, Sarah Ditum pointed out the days of “happy anarchy on the web” may be numbered – digital workers would be wise to have union support, including access to legal training.

As you can see, this fascinating topic raises a host of questions.

Here are a few more.

Bloggers, can you think of situations where you might have welcomed union support? Even to combat the isolation of being freelance?

Or is a union anathema to bloggers?

Do bloggers need a union?

What do you think?

Visit  Elisabeth’s website

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  1. Nick Venedi says:

    Hey this is an excellent idea! Can I join? Can I help organise one? Fantastic concept, lets have a union for bloggers!
    Regards
    Nick

  2. Simon Chapman, Bristol Branch Secretary says:

    Hi Elisabeth,

    I have answered some of these points already on your blog Writing on the Web. But I feel I should try and clarify some points again.

    The NUJ covers members working professionally in a journalistic capacity across all platforms, so that would cover your professional work online.

    I have sought advice from the NUJ Freelance Office. The important issues are what constitutes work, and what constitutes ‘cover’. The primary function of trade unions is to represent members to their employers or clients. Someone who is doing a blog but not earning money from it would have difficulty describing it as work. There would be no employer or client to whom the NUJ could represent the member.

    That leaves defamation and copyright issues. The NUJ does not provide legal assistance in cases of defamation to any member, whatever platform the work is published on. For copyright, as with other legal issues, the NUJ would only take on a case at its discretion.

    The NUJ does not provide formal legal training to members. The NUJ provides legal advice and sometimes legal assistance such as taking a case to court, but this is not an automatic right of membership and is at the discretion of the union.

    The NUJ does not provide legal assistance in defamation cases including libel. So being an NUJ member does not make you immune from legal action for libelling someone. But there is a discount to NUJ members for a Professional Indemnity insurance policy which covers defamation. This policy should cover your blogs that you mention. Obviously one would need to read the policy carefully in detail. For more info please see:

    http://www.londonfreelance.org/fl/0701libe.html

    The NUJ is well aware of new media, and has a specific New Media sector and Industrial Council for new media members. The NUJ indeed wishes to recruit the thousands of online and new media workers, has prioritised this aim at its annual conference, and has already carried out research on the new media industry. There is a specific website for NUJ new media members:

    http://www.nujnewmedia.org.uk/index.html

    It seems very plausible that membership and accreditation by the NUJ and signing up to the NUJ Code of Conduct would give visitors more confidence in a site or blog, which would in turn boost such a site’s audience figures and influence.

    “HOW would the NUJ assess who is a digital worker, especially if he/she is an unpaid blogger?” The point for trade unions including the NUJ is that people who aren’t paid are not classed as workers, and are not eligible to join a trade union. Trade unions are for people who trade, get paid, in their work and profession. The term journalist traditionally means someone who is paid to work as a journalist, a professional is someone who gets paid for the work they do.

    The NUJ has a broad definition of journalism for the purposes of membership, and allows people to join as full members if they earn at least half of their income from journalism and have no other full-time job.

    Or if you are a new entrant to journalism or returning to journalism and can prove you are seeking to establish or re-establish yourself as a full-time freelance journalist without any other full-time paid occupation, then you can be a Temporary member. Your Temporary membership can be renewed annually for a maximum of three years, during which time you may apply for full membership.

    But if as you say the ethos of blogging is so individualistic, will bloggers feel able to act together and be part of a union? Journalists too are known for their independence. But tens of thousands want to be union members.

  3. Nick Venedi says:

    Interesting comments from Simon Chapman. I understand the technical arguments advanced by Simon and he is of course right in mmany ways. I would imagine that if Simon is right bloggers should consider getting together and forming some sort of a collective with rules and a code of practice? And then maybe have a democratic structure to allow for decisions or a change in rules to take place? The ‘collective’ can of course be attached to an established TU like Self Organised Groups are in Unison. I think this is a subject that needs more debate but we should have some rules on how TU bloggers conduct themselves I am, for example, against bloggers allowing non constructive anonymous comments but I am aware that many publish negative and sometimes offensive content.

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