A Union of One

The Freelancers Union treats workers like consumers of the services they provide. It doesn't deserve to be called a union.

Douglas LeMoine / Flickr

The Freelancers Union (FU) first got into many people’s minds on the New York City subway. The constructivist-style advertisements promoted what was once thought impossible: an organizing model for independent contractors, at once denouncing the current economic situation and embracing the power of freelancing.

As business trend articles have been saying been for some time, more and more work is dumped on freelance workers, not salaried ones. And while a freelancer can make good money, depending on the industry, payments diminish with the lack of employer-provided health insurance.

Over the years, the Freelancers Union built its name by promising to advocate for the independent worker in a way no other trade association had sought to do. It also marketed itself as a forum for members to find jobs. But above all, the FU offered reasonable group-rate health insurance. A union, and a health insurance company, were born.

This autumn the FU faces a potential identity crisis, as it is ending this defining feature in the face of complications posed by Obamacare, instead opting for a partnership with the for-profit Empire Plan. The union is framing it at as an expansion, a chance to list more quality health care and dental providers.

But even if the latter is true, it is still a testament to the limits of non-union forms of worker advocacy, especially one that operates like a service for a disparate group of workers rather than a unifying organization. Gary Chaison, a professor of industrial relations at Clark University describes the FU’s shortcoming’s well, saying the group treats “workers as consumers for services they provide,” instead of people needing workplace representation.

The FU has at times perplexed non-members. Eschewing traditional labor union organizing, the FU attracted mainstream attention for having an entrepreneurial spirit. At the same time, FU has battled heat from the Right. In 2012, California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa sent a stinging letter to founder Sara Horowitz, claiming that the FU wrongly received $340 million in government funds for several reasons, including that she might not have the “proper qualifications needed to serve as the CEO of a successful co-op.” Issa is the epitome of a 1% class warrior, so if anything his attack on Horowitz burnishes her left credentials.

The FU is often lauded as a model organization in the world of alt-labor — advocacy groups for workers who legally can’t form collective bargaining units. Providing something as needed as health insurance, it has been able to win itself allies in the business community for its ability to advocate for workers without antagonizing employers.

It works less like a traditional union and more like a non-profit, service-oriented NGO. Instead of an elected executive board with members, its governing panel includes impressive professional faces like an international start-up whiz and someone from Goldman Sachs.

Horowitz sits at the helm. A MacArthur Fellow, she comes from a union family, and in interviews has explained that the impetus for starting the FU came from her frustration that freelancer workers like her were kept out of the labor movement.

Horowitz writes about how freelancers can re-imagine their place in the economy, but little is said about concrete political demands. In 2009, Horowitz wrote about the need to reform New York state’s tax structure to help those filing 1099 forms, but the group hasn’t made great waves since then. It’s political spending for this year was $0.

Perhaps this is because, as Chaison points out, the group isn’t an organization owned by members but an outside entity peddling an insurance plan. But the labor movement is not meant to be an NGO, charity, or low-cost service providers. It is an organ that workers themselves create to challenge bosses and capital.

Embedded in the FU model is the fiction that there’s no space for real unions in a freelance economy. On the contrary, construction unions and entertainment industry guilds are comprised almost entirely of freelance workers who travel from gig to gig, with the union acting as both a sort of exclusive employment agency and a channel to protect wages and provide benefits a freelancer wouldn’t otherwise have.

Case in point: the Editors Guild, an IATSE local representing television editors, recently won back the jobs of Shahs of Sunset editors who had been fired for unionizing. Old-fashioned picketing and solidarity secured a fairer workplace.

National Writers Union President Larry Goldbetter, who represents independent writers, never viewed the FU as an actual union, but rather just a form of health insurance that has since become obsolete with Obamacare.

By contrast, his union has organized independent workers, he says, even if there isn’t collective bargaining. “In the last five years we’ve settled three mass grievances at three publishers,” he says. “Being part of a larger union with a legal, legislative, and organizing department gave us more reach.”

The FU alternative fosters a disconnectedness that erodes solidarity, and sustains competition between individual freelancers.

The question for freelance organizations, then, isn’t simply how they can provide bread-and-butter benefits like health insurance, but how they we can end the misclassification problem: deeming workers independent contractors to cut their pay and benefits. At the very least, the FU should be fighting to set wage rates across the industry, much like constructions unions have done.

In other words, in terms of its survival and relevance, the FU should think more about acting on the second part of its name than the first.