Do Freelancers Need Their Own Union?


As the Great Recession endures, job creation remains the primary focus of many Americans. However, in the national discourse, there has been a significant lack of discussion of what types of positions are being created and prioritized in the present. Because the positions replacing traditional industrialized labor are low-wage, low-skill, and freelance work, conversations need to move forward on the policy level as to how we restructure how people receive benefits and other protections that are deteriorating in the post-industrial economy. As Arianna Huffington observes, with partisan enmity at an all-time high during the Obama administration, it’s highly unlikely these issues will be discussed or tackled in any constructive way in the foreseeable future.

As Erin Hatton wrote for the NYT’s Opinionator blog, the prioritization of temp work over current investment in workers has contributed to this economic climate by creating incentives for hiring expendable labor at lower costs rather than retaining full-time, loyal employees. Increasingly, this model has been adopted in most creative industries, costing these workers the eventuality of stable positions in the future (or, certainly, the amount of these positions that are available in proportion to the number of people that pursue these career paths). These workers often remain uncounted in unemployment statistics and fall under the radar both economically and culturally, which makes it difficult for them to gain clout and become more effective as a constituency that can lobby to get progressive legislation passed. We must expand the definition of who a freelancer is as more employers treat their employees as independent contractors and adopt the temp model.

Organizations like the Freelancers Union encourage freelancers to pool together their power in numbers and create a system of benefits outside the traditional workplace. The Freelancers’ Union intends to be the impetus to push for New Deal era reforms in this uncertain economic age.

Started in 1995 by Sara Horowitz as the result of her Fulbright research under the name "Working Today," the Union serves as both a resource to freelance workers, providing tools to negotiate contracts and be more productive workers, and in 31 states, provides health insurance. Current political actions the Union is working on include exempting freelancers from the payroll tax that was instituted in the wake of the fiscal cliff expiration, as well as reforming taxation rates. The Union has also been pushing for legislation that would penalize employers that breach contracts and have withheld payment for services freelancers provided.

The most important concern that Horowitz brings up is that government, both on the regional and national level, is not adapting quickly enough to accommodate for the changing nature of the workplace. While freelance work poses similar challenges to retail work in its lack of stability, the widely-held perception of these positions as "temporary" or "stop-gap" roles on the way to finding a salaried position means they are not privileged with the same protections as rapidly-disappearing "full-time" work, an intensely problematic predicament.

Furthermore, millennials are no longer tied to the idea that they should remain with a single employer for the rest of their lives. They realize the limitations of remaining with one job on both their personal and professional growth, as well as that we no longer live in a world where permanent employment for one firm is feasible. The average time that millennials remain with the same job position is 4.4 years. Rather than suggesting flightiness, this reflects their desires to find positions that suit and add to a comprehensive skill set that benefits both employers and employees.

As Deanna Zandt has stressed, our networks and career paths are no longer linear, and this has undoubtedly become a boon for workers in many ways. Not only are self-actualized workers more productive, but they can also bring a diversity of skills and perspectives to their chosen industries.