Illustration by Erin Aniker

In May 1919, just six months after the end of WWI and during the turbulent early days of the Weimar Republic, three German graphic artists—Max Hertwig, Jupp Wiertz, and Hans Meyer—founded the Bund deutscher Gebrauchsgraphiker, or Union of German Commercial Artists. It was the first trade organization in Germany for the profession now known as graphic design, and it strove for fair payment for its members. Over the next few decades, the organization tried several times to issue fee recommendations, or to make compensation scales more transparent. Each time, they were stopped from doing so by the German antitrust authorities, who smelled price-fixing.

“And then came Helmut Schmidt,” says Victoria Ringleb, chairwoman of the Alliance of German Graphic Designers (AGD), a professional association of freelance designers. Schmidt, who served as the Social Democratic chancellor from 1974 to 1982, introduced several reforms to strengthen the rights of employees in Germany. He also introduced the right of collective bargaining to organizations consisting of “employee-like artists,” with an aim to protect freelance artists and journalists. This paved the way for the 1976 founding of the AGD as the Working Group of Employee-Like Graphic Designers, followed by its negotiating counterpart, the Association of Independent Design Studios. The two sides published the first German labor agreement for freelance graphic designers in 1977, which gave an overview of services, required time, and recommended fees.

The fight to include freelancers in the safeguards of the German welfare state has stagnated in recent years.

Renegotiated every four years, the VTV, as the labor agreement is abbreviated in German, remains the only document of its kind in Europe. Over nearly 180 pages, the 2015 edition explains the general value of design and how to calculate rights of use; provides an overview of the design process; and exhaustively lists the services and potential hours involved in producing anything from digital media design to illustration to fashion design. It recommends a baseline hourly rate of €90, for example. Other suggestions for fees include a total cost of €3,420 to produce a portrait photo of a CEO; €46,320 for a full corporate design; and €86,286.12 to design and build a trade fair booth.

The VTV is a valiant and valuable attempt to replicate the success of Germany’s strong trade unions in one corner of the freelance sector, but the fight to include freelancers in the safeguards of the German welfare state has stagnated in recent years. The main reason is the lack of powerful political representation. Joining an organization may be anathema to many free-spirited independent workers, but if freelance graphic designers want to further their interests, they would do well to join forces with other freelance workers—and not just from the creative industries—and form a union.

One goal freelance graphic designers could fight for would be to have the word “artists” struck from Schmidt’s collective bargaining law. As the work of designers has become broader, the VTV has become ever more complex. “It’s a balancing act,” Ringleb says. “By law, non-artistic services mustn’t take up too much space.” If they did, the Federal Anti-Monopoly Office would immediately get involved. The AGD tiptoes around the issue by portraying the artistic side of design work more prominently than business and consulting services. So far, they’ve gotten away with it.

Ringleb estimates that there are roughly 100,000 freelance graphic designers in Germany. A 2013 study shows that 72% of all designers employed by design studios are freelancers, who on average earned €2,600 per month—€1,100 less than the average employee. With 2,500 members, the AGD is far from being a representative trade union for graphic designers. And as a professional organization rather than a union, it doesn’t have any enforcement mechanisms in place to make sure freelance designers are indeed paid what it suggests. If a client doesn’t want to hire someone at a certain rate, nobody can force them to. And boycotting a client would require not just great organization, but also great solidarity—not a luxury many freelancers feel they can afford.

If freelance graphic designers want to further their interests, they would do well to join forces with other freelance workers—and not just from the creative industries—and form a union.

“If I, as an individual, tried to push my client to pay me what the VTV says, I’d never again get a job from them. It’s a catch-22,” says Veronika Mirschel, who runs the freelance department at the trade union ver.di. Founded through the integration of five trade unions in 2001—including the Media Union, which brought the freelancers—ver.di is Germany’s second largest union with roughly two million members. Of those, the freelance department counts for a measly 30,000 people. The benefit to joining a trade unions like ver.di is collective bargaining power, but since freelancers are viewed to operate independently in a free market, there are still no enforcement mechanisms for fees.

One of Mirschel’s main concerns is establishing fair remuneration for freelancers, since they are not covered by Germany’s minimum wage law. In that context, she views the rise of apps and websites that award jobs and set rates—with the algorithm as the boss—with great worry, including in design. She’s pushing for the public sector to set certain standards by issuing criteria for awarding contracts, including remuneration. “That would be a real smash because it would lead by example,” she says, adding that ver.di has had one success with the education sector in Berlin state.

Another path Mirschel recommends to upend the David v. Goliath relationship between freelancers and clients is for freelancers to set up a cooperative company that acts as an employer and through sheer size would be in a much stronger position to negotiate fees with clients—in other words, the suspension of freelancing in exchange for greater security. One such cooperative, the Belgian Société Mutuelle pour artistes (SMart), has recently expanded into Germany, as well as seven other European countries, and claims to represent over 90,000 freelancers. For a joining fee of €50 plus 7% of the net revenue of each handled project, SMart promises affordable access to social security, including health insurance, as well as help with large or international projects.

“All the freelancers who aren’t allowed into the Social Security for Artists also need affordable coverage,” Mirschel says.

Social security is indeed another headache for many German freelance designers. Traditionally, anybody who is self-employed in Germany can choose between private insurance or the public system. The former is attractive for younger people, but fees rise with age, often becoming prohibitively expensive. In the public system, fees are fixed at a percentage of income, but freelancers have to cover both the employee and the employer part of the contribution—which for many is financially unfeasible.

Since 1983, freelance artists, journalists, and writers have been able to join the Social Security for Artists, a system wherein freelancers pay only the employee contributions of their public insurance for healthcare and retirement. Meanwhile, the employer part of the liability is covered by “exploiting parties,” a.k.a the clients. It’s an attractive system, but because of its limitation to “artists” it’s only accessible to certain disciplines within design; for example, graphic designers can join, but web designers can’t. “All the freelancers who aren’t allowed into the Social Security for Artists also need affordable coverage,” Mirschel says, adding that she’s fighting to get the issue on the political agenda. “Clients have to pay their share of social security. We want a Social Security for Artists for all freelancers.”

Despite changing employment patterns and the rise of non-linear careers, freelancers haven’t been a political priority in Germany. The reason, Dr. Karin Schulze Buschoff believes, is the lack of trade unions specifically for freelancers. Schulze Buschoff studies European labor markets for the Hans Boeckler Foundation, which is part of the governing body of all German trade unions. She has found particularly stark contrasts in the treatment of freelancers between Germany and the Netherlands.

“In Germany, freelancers are viewed as the economically precarious who have to be protected because they can’t make it on their own,” she says. “The Netherlands have expanded their trade unions to support freelancers as entrepreneurs. They strengthened their autonomy rather than constructing an image of the weak and poor.”

German trade unions, by contrast, tend to view freelancers as a threat rather than a potential clientele. “Trade unions think freelancing could lower employment rights and social security standards and create a race to the bottom,” Schulze Buschoff explains. “So when someone demands more protection for freelancers, trade unions often resist, saying, ‘We don’t want to subsidize a type of occupation that’s damaging for our employees and bad for those living in precarious circumstances.’”

The Netherlands have expanded their trade unions to support freelancers as entrepreneurs.

Veronika Mirschel of ver.di says that founding an independent trade union for freelancers is something her department has considered, but they ultimately decided they’d be stronger within an organization of two million members. In any case, her political priorities are exactly what Schulze Buschoff recommends freelancers should fight for: better regulation of work and income conditions, and a reform of the social security system according to the Dutch model, where baseline retirement payments and other benefits are independent from a person’s income.

“Creatives especially have discontinuous employment histories, with both good and bad times,” says Schulze Buschoff. “And they are not very well covered in our current system.” (In Germany, benefits are tied to contributions paid.) Unfortunately, she doesn’t see the political will to push through reforms. “Until recently, people said that freelancers should benefit from the Solidargemeinschaft,” the idea social security introduced under Bismarck, in the late 19th century. “Now they say, freelancers are freeloaders. The majority still believes that freelancers should pay their full share and if they can’t, they shouldn’t be on the market.”

Both Mirschel and Schulze Buschoff are hopeful about the European Pillar of Social Rights, a policy project by the European Commission to build “a more inclusive and fairer European Union.” One current recommendation is to open national social security systems to freelancers. But Schulze Buschoff also thinks that in order to push their political agendas, freelancers—who may be constitutionally averse to organizing labor—need to create or join trade unions. The number of freelance members at ver.di, she points out, has been stagnating for years. 

If only half of Germany’s 100,000 or so freelance designers formed a trade union, they would be powerful voice. If they didn’t just stick to their own kind but joined forces with other freelancers—from teachers, to care workers, to taxi drivers—they could go much further than linking arms in the face of powerful clients; they could become a political force for the full recognition and regulation of freelance work in the German welfare state.

In order to push their political agendas, freelancers—who may be constitutionally averse to organizing labor—need to create or join trade unions.

Schulze Buschoff believes that regulating freelance work will help prevent the social dumping everybody is afraid of. “If freelancers are secure in their labor rights and everybody pays social security contributions, you close the gap between freelancers and employees. Strengthening the rights of freelancers means you strengthen the system as a whole.”