The Graphic History Collective Unionizes
By Daniel Tseghay, RankandFile.ca Writer/Organizer
On September 2nd, the Graphic History Collective (GHC), a volunteer-run collective producing comic books on Canada’s labour and working class history, announced that it has joined the Canadian Freelance Union (CFU). The CFU is a Community Chapter of Unifor. This type of organization gives its members some of the benefits of unionizing outside of the traditional employment relationship. Such employment conditions are the norm amongst freelancers and independent media workers in general and the GHC collective in particular.
As illustrators of the radical history of British Columbia and Canada, union representation just seemed like a natural step for members of the collective.
“We do a lot of thinking about the role of labour and workers. We wanted to make sure that what we do and what we say align,” said Sam Bradd, GHC graphic facilitator, illustrator and founding member.
The collective originally came together to create “May Day: A Graphic History of Protest in Canada”, now in its 3rd edition. In 2016, they’ll be releasing “Drawn to Change: Graphic Histories of Working Class Struggle.” The Collective is currently working on a comic tentatively titled “Direct Action Gets the Goods: A Graphic History of the Strike as Political Protest.” These comics are replete with British Columbian history. “May Day” includes the Big Strike (1912-1914) and the annual bean supper in Cumberland on Vancouver Island. Many of the comics in “Drawn to Change” focus on BC’s rich working class history, including one on the Corbin Miners’ Strike, the Battle of Ballantyne Pier, and the socialist feminist union, SORWUC. The BC Government Employees’ Union has even provided start-up funding support for “Direct Action Gets the Goods”.
While the CFU is open to a variety of independent media workers, the GHC’s attention to labour history is particularly welcomed. “I think it’s important that any union member and people in the labour movement look at the stuff the GHC produces and not just for knowing the history but being able to think about what we need to do today”, said Derrick O’Keefe, CFU member-organizer for Vancouver. “If you hang around the labour movement today, it’s definitely missing that radical energy it once had, so I think GHC is a brilliant addition.”
O’Keefe explains that during Unifor’s formation, a critical discussion took place around the importance of organizing as well as representing workers outside of traditional workplaces.This is where the formation of community chapters came in.
The community chapter model also speaks to broader struggles and issues facing workers. “One of the things that I think is really important, in addition to advocating for bread and butter issues like making sure publishers pay freelancers, or offering a benefits package…to be advocating publicly for key social issues,” said O’Keefe. “It’s not only thinking of unions as about including people in non-traditional workplaces. It’s about thinking of unionism as building social movements, and figuring out what people need in a particular place.”
Broader social movements aside, the CFU offers tangible benefits. Members can pay into a benefits plan with added health and dental insurance. There’s even potential to develop workplace equipment insurance plans for items like graphic design tools, printers, and computers, which are critical for the craft. Though there currently are no collective agreements for independent media workers that include binding contractual obligations for employers to follow, the CFU will engage in tactics to ensure workers get paid. “There’s also a directory and the services they provide and this goes out to different unions and potential employers who want to hire unionized freelancers,” O’Keefe said. “Freelancers get more business because they’re unionized. We can do more work on making sure that unions aren’t contracting out anything to non-unionized graphic designers and writers.”
In highlighting some of the challenges facing independent media workers, and working to overcome them, the union dispels the myth of freelancers being a creative class that is immune to exploitation by employers and the precarious nature of this type of work. “We’re cultural producers but we’re also helping people who might think of themselves as freelancers and contractors realize that, at the core, they’re still workers,” said Bradd.
By being deemed independent contractors, freelancers have lost when it comes to wages, secure benefits, and basic employment standard protections. Employers are able to use the concept of “labour of love” to squeeze more unpaid work out of them. Independent media workers are certainly workers firmly connected to the struggles of the labour movement.
Some, though, might raise questions about the effectiveness of CFU, and the community chapter in general. Because it’s not a union and falls outside the jurisdiction of labour relations legislation, the CFU does not engage in collective bargaining and cannot enforce contracts in the same manner as a traditional labour organization. It is also argued that the CFU, like the Freelancers Union in the States, treats “workers as consumers for services they provide” with an emphasis on benefit plans rather than engaging in labour struggles.
Despite these shortcomings, the inclusion of freelancers into the union movement, alt-labour or not, is promising.
The recognition of their relationship to other workers has not only inspired the GHC to create labour and working class histories, but to create an internal model reflecting this understanding. “One of the comics about Filipino workers in Ontario was a community-based research project,” said Bradd. “It’s not only about the subject of the work – labour – but about how the work gets done.” Perhaps one day a graphic history will be constructed about the development of these innovative, and important, freelance unions.