I got my membership card for the Society of Authors on Friday. OK I know, as an Irish writer I should join the Irish Writers Union but that can wait a little. I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember and, growing up in a family where it was considered a matter of considerable importance to be a paid up member of the appropriate professional body, I had sussed out that the Society of Authors was the one I wanted to be a member of before my family had even moved to Ireland.
As I’ve mentioned before I grew up in an acting family. I was always aware of the actors union Equity being an organisation that a young actor had to join before being able to get proper professional work. Back in my late teens when I was considering acting as a career path (well, back then I hadn’t worked out how to make writing pay and even writers need to eat) I was anxious to find out how I could get the five contracts necessary to qualify for full membership of the union.
When I began to study journalism one of the first things we were given on our first day as students was the form for student membership of the NUJ. I was just as excited to get that blue card as I was to get this new one the other day.
When I finished college I was so proud to see the blue card changed for the orange one that now lives in my wallet. It never occurred to me not to join the union. In a career as precarious as acting or freelance journalism it seemed like a complete no brainer. All my lecturers in college were die hard union men and we learnt journalism according to union rules when it came to ethics and even the money we could expect to be paid.
It was only when I went out into the real world I discovered how little respect unions can have in the modern media workplace. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard my peers in various newsrooms (generally in the independent broadcast sector) query the point of joining a union at all. Several were even vocally against union membership.
It’s easy to see how these attitudes can grow up though when you look at the treatment of staff in the independent broadcast sector in Ireland. TV3 for example has never recognised the union and even where a chapter exists they are frequently seen as having no teeth. The freelance chapter is one of the more vocal sections of the NUJ and yet the Competition Authority has ruled that freelance journalists in Ireland should be viewed under competition regulations and not be able to set standard rates. The union was therefore unable to advise freelancers on a ballpark figure to charge leaving new comers to the field at a major disadvantage.
Under the recent partnership talks there was a promise that this rule would be reversed but since the Celtic Tiger keeled over and died it looks like all bets are off.
I can remember talking to French classmates when I was on exchange there in college who couldn’t understand why the Irish were so slow to strike (we seem to be getting over our aversion at the moment but I’m talking about the days of the “Blue Flu” when the French journos couldn’t understand why the gardai didn’t just down tools). Certainly compared to their British counterparts the Irish branches of the NUJ and Equity do seem to whisper their demands and lack a little organisation (compare the web presence of the Irish NUJ compared to the resources offered by the London Freelance Branch). I can’t help worrying every time I talk to another young journo who can’t see the point of membership that the Irish unions are in danger of becoming toothless social clubs that offer little or nothing for their members.
But I didn’t want this post to be a rant against unions. I do believe in joining professional organisations even if I would be slightly quicker to join the British branch if I wanted support and action. I’m seriously cutting a stick for my own back here but I do believe it’s a problem. Unions won’t survive without a constant supply of new members and since Ireland is a naturally conservative country we do have a tendency to lean towards the thatcherite when it comes to business practices. There are strong unions in Ireland but they seem to be overwhelmingly in the public sector and that’s a topic I don’t intend to get involved with just at the moment.
The problem is that it’s frequently the private sector that really needs someone gunning for them and often, through the apathy of those who could join and the weakness of the voices who could persuade them to, an environment grows up where staff are treated as expendable and worthless.
I’m not saying that unions are dead in the media and arts in Ireland. Far from it. They just have less weight than their counterparts in other countries. I still see my membership card for the professional organisations that I’m a member of as something to be proud of and I would always advise anyone entering the media in Ireland to join up as soon as possible. As a writer I think membership of your professional body is even more important as it’s such a solitary profession. I will be joining the Irish Writers Union as soon as possible since they’re the union that can fight more directly for my corner but I’m still thoroughly enjoying the SoA magazine and the fact that I now qualify for a readers ticket for the British Library (it’s an old thing).
I know that union membership is a contentious issue here and I’d be glad to hear anyone’s differing take on the subject. I’m not a rabid union head but as I mentioned journalism, writing and acting are all professions that particularly need the support. Let me know what you think.