A funny thing happened after California’s Assembly Bill 5, a law that strengthens the state’s rules on employee misclassification, took effect on January 1. AB5 uses a three-pronged “ABC” test to clarify who counts as an employee versus an independent contractor, ensuring that companies can’t skimp out on protections like paid sick days, overtime or workers’ compensation. Gig workers long exploited by Big Tech celebrated a win, as correct employee classification will mean more take-home pay and the opportunity to unionize for benefits. But freelancers in creative fields like music, photography and journalism erupted into outrage.
Those in the latter group have real reason for concern, because our corporate clients can simply blacklist in-state contractors rather than onboarding us as W-2 employees per the intention of the law. In other words, if a given company doesn’t want to hire a California-based freelancer as a salaried employee, it can just stop commissioning assignments from anyone living in the state altogether. With media corporations like Vox choosing contractors located outside of California to save money and avoid regulation, according to complaints from freelancers, many California writers worry about losing income. It doesn’t help that, under the legislation, writers were given a 35-article annual cap per outlet; unfortunately, journalism wages are so depressed that this number of assignments can’t generate enough money to keep most of us afloat.
As a freelance writer myself, I watched eagerly to see how others in the industry would respond to this situation, which seemed like an opportunity to reckon with our financial precarity in a changing media landscape. How would we react to best safeguard our income: Organize to demand minimum rate standards per word and collectively refuse to work for less, so that we could survive on fewer but better compensated assignments? Campaign for policies like universal healthcare, free childcare and affordable housing, which would make losing work substantially less catastrophic? Exert public pressure on the corporations that have greedily and callously dropped local contractors instead of hiring us fulltime?
As it turns out, many freelancers opposing AB5 have joined forces with some strange right-wing bedfellows, and anchored their resistance to the law in solidly libertarian logic. The American Society of Journalists and Authors and the National Press Photographers Association sought counsel from a Koch-funded, union-busting firm, the Pacific Legal Foundation, to sue California over AB5 in federal court this March.
The PLF’s history includes defending private property from the Endangered Species Act and supporting landlord discrimination against renters. “ASJA and NPPA are making a huge mistake,” says Larry Goldbetter, President of the National Writers Union, who says his union is the only freelancer group supporting the California law. I’m one of the few writers who vocally agrees with Goldbetter. I believe aligning with the PLF is a Faustian bargain, and an abandonment of any semblance of progressive principles. But the lawsuit — and the larger movement to repeal AB5 — raises the question of just how committed some California freelancers are to such principles in the first place. Raising further concern is the fact that many members of two new Facebook groups, “Freelancers Against AB5” and “California Freelance Writers United,” share articles from libertarian-leaning publications like The Federalist and Reason.
To what extent this attitude predated AB5 is difficult to determine. But prior to the swift, impassioned opposition to the law that coalesced online in the past few months, there existed little political organizing among freelance writers against the serious problems — low rates, bad contracts, and late payments — that plague our industry. In contrast to staff writers, whose unionizing efforts have recently increased, contractors tend to envision ourselves as free agents, and often to our own detriment.
Now, one of our first large-scale attempts at political mobilization, resisting AB5 (and delaying New Jersey’s version, Senate Bill 4204), potentially comes at the expense of rideshare drivers, delivery people, strippers who sued to be recognized as employees, janitors, nail techs, health and childcare workers, and others who materially benefit from labor reform like AB5 and similar policies combatting misclassification.
This lack of labor solidarity is likely rooted in the ways freelance creatives understand our jobs and identities. In a bid for legitimacy, we often emphasize how our specialized, professional skills elevate us to something better than lowly employees. We have careers we’ve spent years building, the argument goes, while Uber drivers just have temporary, throwaway gigs. The ego-preserving myth that we’re “small business” entrepreneurs rather than predominantly members of the working-class who sell our labor as piecework has its appeal.
Yet almost all of us, from Postmates and Doordash couriers to journalists and transcribers, work for diminishing wages and must absorb the full cost of health insurance. Most of us can’t predict our income from year to year or even month to month. Some earn less than $5 per hour. But for many self-employed creatives, these realities conflict with the image of the successful professional that we like to project to the public, and — let’s face it — to ourselves. Clients inhabit a position of power over us, not unlike the shop floor bosses of yore, and we make allies with them at our own risk. Employers save approximately 30% in labor costs by using contractors, so it’s no surprise that media companies would rather blacklist us and look to exploit labor in less regulated states than cough up money for benefits. Why not direct our mass ire at them — the entities actually withholding jobs to safeguard their own bottom line — instead of at unions?
It would be great to see more than a small handful journalists publicly and vociferously defend the portions of AB5 that help other types of gig workers. If freelancers do win the case against labor reform in California and other states planning similar legislation, I hope we would use the political momentum to forge alliances with gig workers in different industries and stand together against corporate avarice. It’s one thing to advocate improving the law; AB5 certainly needs tweaking, and jettisoning the arbitrary 35 article cap for writers is a good place to start. But it’s another thing entirely to sidle up to Big Tech, Republican politicians, and firms like PLF, and to defend our work using the capitalist ethos of “individualism.” The only way forward is to put solidarity before self-interest. Once we cede basic leftist values, what else will we give up?