When is the moment in time for a freelance writer that a late payment becomes wage theft, and what do you do about it?
For A.J. Springer, who recently moved to the District of Columbia, the line was April 27, 2017, when he went public in a Chicago Tribune news story about the $1,755 owed him at the time for pieces he wrote for the magazines Ebony and Jet.
It’s hard to step forward as a freelance writer, and publicly demand payment. "A lot of people were uneasy or afraid to speak out. There are no protections for freelancers, and a lot of people are afraid of losing future work," Springer said.
The Establishment first broke the nonpayment story, which spurred Larry Goldbetter, president of the National Writers Union (NWU)/UAW Local 1981, to start emailing and calling writers to say his union could help.
The NWU has a long history of fighting for freelance writers, filing suit against media companies in the 1990s to win back pay for those whose works had been sold and resold to databases. (Some writers actually received checks in the mail, out of the blue. As a freelance writer at the time in Boulder, Colorado, I was one of them.)
When Goldbetter reached Springer, he immediately joined the NWU, and so did other unpaid Ebony and Jet freelance writers.
Goldbetter says the list has been growing week by week since the campaign to get Ebony and Jet to pay hit the mainstream.
Six writers had come forward in early May. After Labor Day, the NWU filed a lawsuit against Ebony Media Operations and its parent company, Clear View Group, for allegedly violating the contracts of 37 freelance writers, editors and others who are collectively owed more than $70,000. The case was filed in Cook County, Illinois.
"Oftentimes, freelancers are at the mercy of the publications they write for," Goldbetter said. "They often lack union protections other workers have and many are afraid of being blackballed for speaking up about nonpayment."
Earlier in August, the National Association of Black Journalists presented Ebony with its Thumbs Down award, and unpaid Ebony writers attended the conference for free.
The decision to go public has paid off, at least in part, for Springer. He received about $1,100. He's one of the writers suing the magazines.
Early in his journalism career, when Springer was still a high school student in Las Vegas, he learned of the power of the press. He interviewed the new school superintendent, who used a racial epithet. When the story broke, the superintendent was fired.
Now, with a master’s degree and more than a decade of paid writing and radio work behind him, Springer is thoughtful about a different kind of power—the kind you build together, through communication.
"When this issue came up, I was in a position to speak loudly and boldly," he said. And so he did. "I knew if I lost any potential work, I’d be OK. It was important to organize and to speak out."