Saturday, April 30, 2011

Pulling a Norma Rae

I pulled a Norma Rae in my first job out of college. Remember sweet little Sally Field ringing the union bell (so to speak) in that movie back in the 70's? ( Okay, if you weren't born then, here's a clip: ) I didn't go as far as Norma Rae but it's a point in time that has always stayed with me.

I was working as a "freelance" paste-up artist in the advertising department at a big department store in downtown Boston known as Jordan Marsh. Back in the dark ages before Macintosh the weekly full-page newspaper ads were laid out by hand. The type was set in big sheets, cut and pasted in place, along with any photographs or pieces of art. That was my job and I worked with a group of other people 40 hours a week, on-site, all doing the same thing. Because we were "freelance" we were supposed to be independent contractors -- self-employed -- and entitled to no benefits. We had to pay our own social security and self-employment taxes and had no health insurance, no sick leave or vacation pay, no overtime, no workman's comp. We were all young 20-somethings, newly out of college and didn't know any better.

And we didn't think anything of it either. It was a very fun place to work, we were all artists and aspired to being able to move up into ad design and photo shoots. It was a "great opportunity" and we felt very lucky to be able to get our foot in the door.

Until the time when one of the graphic designers started handing in work late when we were on a deadline. It started innocently enough. At ten minutes before quitting time she'd run in with ads that had to be done that night. And then it happened again. And again. And again. Until it was a regular event that would keep two or more of us busy working overtime for no overtime pay several hours each week.

And not only that, she was a bitch about it. No sweet "would you please do this for me?" No, when we protested it became a bullying situation... and that's when I tried to get the team to fight for our rights.

Unfortunately, they were afraid to. "Oh God, I need this job, I can't afford to leave this job." Of course, we couldn't -- we were being paid so low we couldn't save money. We could barely afford to eat! You know how the story goes.

Then one of us took time off for a week and a real freelance contract worker came in as a substitute. A great guy, happy to share what it was like to do freelance work for several advertising agencies instead of just one. And in the course of that conversation we found out he made twice as much as we did and they treated him better, too! What was going on here?

So he told us. Real contract workers get paid twice or more what employees make because they don't get benefits, they don't get sick leave, etc, etc. That's just "how it is done."

"Oh really?" I said. My co-workers were upset but they still wouldn't stand up for themselves. The next time the bitchy graphic designer came in just as we were packing up to go, I told her "no, we aren't covering your ass any longer. You have to meet your own deadlines and treat us with respect!" She threatened to have me fired and my co-workers scrambled to play nice and took the job on.

I gave up and wound up quitting as soon as I could. But when I did, something happened and my co-workers regretted not standing by me. They staged a sit-in in the Creative Director's office demanding to be made full employees with all the rights guaranteed them by the law. He threw them out of there but within weeks their demands were met. It turns out 40 hours of on-site labor per week does not fit the legal definition of "independent contractor" in the state of Massachusetts. Big fines and penalties can be levied for breaking fair labor practices law. Jordan Marsh wasn't willing to risk a lawsuit and the rest is history.

FYI: The practice I just detailed here is currently illegal in many other states of the union as well.

No comments: