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Graphic Artists Guild Gives Freelancers Union Benefits

On October 6, 2011, the Obama for America re-election campaign announced a design contest to produce a poster in support of the American Jobs Act. Artists around the country were invited to send in their submissions in return for which three winners would receive a framed print of their own work signed by the president. They wouldn’t get paid as the poster appeared on billboards across the country to support the president’s re-election campaign and neither would the designer of any other submission that the organizers felt they might want to use. There wasn’t even a guarantee that the designers would receive credit.

It’s the kind of crowdsourced appeal for free work that has long irritated professional graphic designers and other freelancers — and, in an open letter to the Obama for America Campaign, it brought a strong rebuke from the Graphic Artists Guild.

“How obvious is this irony: A crowdsourced contest soliciting free work (spec work) from American artists for the purpose of promoting legislation to create jobs,” the Guild complained. “The Obama For America re-election campaign contest… is shameful. American artists should be outraged that our President does not recognize that we are entitled to be paid for our work, as are all Americans.”

The Graphic Artist Guild has been standing up for designers for a while. Formed in 1967 when a group of graphic artists in Detroit came together to improve their pay and conditions in the automobile advertising industry, it now has 1,200 members who include illustrators, cartoonists, animators, digital artists and photographers as well as graphic designers. Full membership is restricted to working artists who earn over half their income from graphic work while associate membership is available for people who earn less than half their income from their designs and for non-artists such as their agents and lawyers.

Collective Bargaining

The Guild is, in effect, a kind of union for freelancers although it also represents designers who earn both 100 percent of their income from their design work and 100 percent of that income from the same employer. The Guild is the collective bargaining unit for the graphic designers employed at Public Television Station Thirteen/WNET in New York City, for example, and negotiates their contracts on their behalf every three or four years.

For freelancers, the Guild’s services include a grievance process that members can use to try to resolve issues that arise when dealing with clients. According to Tricia McKiernan, the guild’s executive director, the most common issues are — not surprisingly — non-payment and infringement.

The Guild’s most useful service though may not be its ability to help freelancers negotiate with employers or solve their disputes with them — services which require the agreement of both sides — but its  Handbook: Pricing and Ethical Guidelines. Provided with membership but also available from Amazon, the handbook is updated every two years and is now in its 13th edition. The book uses anonymous surveys sent to both guild members and non-members to gain an idea of the different pricing levels actually being earned for various kinds of artistic work.

Kelly Blue Book for Graphic Design Services

That might make the handbook a kind of Kelly Blue Book for graphic design services, but selling a logo, a Web page or stationery design isn’t quite the same as selling a used car. The price of a car, for one, will be the same regardless of the number of miles the buyer intends to drive in it while usage is often a factor in fixing the price of graphic design work as well as photography.

Although the prices listed in the handbook then can give designers an idea of the amounts that other designers are receiving for similar work (and therefore the amounts that clients are willing to spend), those fees can only be general guides to a final sum. Clients aren’t expected to agree to the prices in the same way that a used car seller is likely to accept a list price as the baseline for negotiations, and the handbook doesn’t take into account benefits that are difficult to measure such as talent, style or experience.

“The book cannot tell you what to price,” warns Tricia McKiernan. “The pricing charts are guidelines only. The cost to design a web page or a web site is a negotiation between the graphic artist and his/her client. Everything is a negotiation between the client and the graphic artist.”

Nonetheless, the handbook is used frequently in Small Claims Court by freelance designers who need to show industry standards as they press a claim against a recalcitrant client.

The handbook isn’t just about pricing though. It’s also a guide to business for people whose studies were focused on CAD or Photoshop rather than on marketing and business growth. And it provides a guide to the ethical challenges that designers now face — including the hunt for free labor.

“There are so many things going on in the world today that affect how a graphic artist makes a living, it’s sometimes hard to choose which one is the worst,” says McKiernan. “Certainly spec work; crowdsourcing, which is another form of spec work; design projects masquerading as contests; rampant digital theft/infringement of work from web sites, etc.”

Freelancing is usually lonely work. Freelance designers are frequently one-man or one-woman shops operating from a home office and negotiating directly with a client with little idea of how much other freelancers are charging or what they can do if the client runs off with their design. When you work like that, forming a one-person union doesn’t seem like the most effective way to solve disputes and smooth negotiations. The Graphic Artists Guild then does look like a valuable solution and it provides an essential service to the design industry, both for its freelancers and its employees. But how easily can the model be copied by other freelancers in other fields?

McKiernan notes that the Graphic Artists Guild relies on the activities of its members and concedes that while it’s possible for members of any profession to form a guild, build a structure and organize the group, it’s not easy to do. Graphic designers, then, should consider themselves lucky — even if the president wants them to work for free.


Corrections: In the original version of this story, we spelt Ms McKiernan’s name incorrectly and suggested that the handbook is included free with membership; it’s included with membership. We’ve also clarified that most of the Guild’s work is with freelancers. Apologies


One Comment

  1. Arts lawyer Says:

    Good post. Just another correction about your title: The Graphic Artists Guild cannot give freelancers union benefits, simply because it can't represent freelancers, in collective bargaining or any other activity. That would violate the National Labor Relations Act, which excludes independent contractors (freelancers) from its provisions. So, to say the Guild is a "kind of union for freelancers" makes it sound like a freelancer would get some union protection by being a Guild member. Unfortunately, that's not true.

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