On Aug. 9, I received a check for $1,050. That was my back pay from a small publication I’d done freelance editing and writing for—after they’d fired me for insisting that I get paid what we’d agreed on. That I got it shows how even a relatively weak union can help.
My deal had been for a flat rate of $600 a month for editing articles for both their quarterly magazine and Website, plus extra for any articles I wrote. But they were chronically slow about paying me. While freelancers are notoriously vulnerable to getting cut off if they’re perceived as “difficult” about money, I figured I was reasonably safe, because I’d known my boss, the editor-in-chief, professionally for 25 years.
I was wrong. Things came to a head in April, when I complained about my pay for February and March being short, and that one of my articles had been edited by expanding a one-line quote from Donald Trump in the lead sentence to two full paragraphs of his armchair-tough babble. My boss said I’d gotten paid less because the workload in March had been lighter, and that I had to “respect” his editing. When I emailed him that we’d agreed on a flat rate because we knew the workload was going to fluctuate, and that disagreements are a normal and healthy part of the editing process, he didn’t respond.
Instead, he stopped sending me Web editing, about 40% of my workload, without telling me. I didn’t find out until early June, when I asked to be paid for April and May. He answered, “I’m not going to pay you for work you didn’t do.”
I told him that wasn’t our agreement. “You’re always hassling me about money,” he whinged. (He insisted that I’d already been paid for April—when I’d actually been paid IN April for March and part of February.) I added that under a city law enacted in 2017, the Freelance Isn’t Free Act, all employers who hire freelancers for more than $800 worth of work in a four-month period are supposed to give them a written contract that guarantees payment within 30 days.
“What would I put in a contract?” he said.
I emailed him and the CEO that I was owed $1,250, including my back pay from March. He said he’d give me $600. I got it, thanked them, and said I was still owed $650. When I sent a followup email two weeks later about the $650, I was fired.
I emailed him and the CEO that I was owed $1,250, including my back pay from March. He said he’d give me $600. I got it, thanked them, and said I was still owed $650.
In early July, I filed a complaint with the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs’ Office of Labor Standards for $1,050. I’d been on the payroll for three weeks in June, I figured, and if my boss wanted me to spend that $400 worth of time arguing about money instead of editing, that was his choice. I also called the National Writers Union, United Auto Workers Local 1981, which I’d rejoined this year. They said they would help represent me at the city hearing, and also send a message to the magazine if I wanted.
The magazine offered to settle about 10 days later, after a weak attempt to lowball me. I sent them an invoice stating that this was the full amount I was owed. But they responded that their lawyer insisted that I sign a nondisparagement agreement. As written, it would have exposed me to a lawsuit if I said anything negative about the magazine or anyone who worked there, even in a private conversation.
If they wanted to avoid bad publicity, the smart thing to do would have been to settle quickly, rather than fight paying someone who regularly writes about wage theft. But I didn’t want to say that explicitly, because it would have been perceived as a threat.
The NWU is a small union, with less than 2,000 members, and because it represents freelancers, it has no power of collective bargaining. But it does have the power of solidarity and publicity. I bounced an idea off President Larry Goldbetter, and then spoke to the magazine’s chief financial officer.
“I’m a member of the National Writers Union, and I held off on filing a grievance because you quickly offered to settle,” I told him. “But I just spoke to the union president, and if you want to take this to a hearing, I will have to file one so they can help represent me. That will set in motion a process that will include them sending a warning to all their members that your magazine doesn’t pay its writers.”
He quickly agreed to reduce the nondisparagement agreement to a statement that I wouldn’t “slander” them, which means I can’t say anything malicious that I know or should know is false.
In a union with the power of collective bargaining and a grievance procedure, I never would have had this problem. I would still have the job. But the implied power of even a small, relatively weak union got me my $1,050—and that’s $1,050 better than having to live with getting ripped off by petty bullies.
Paying my dues was worth it.