Four Myths About the “Freelancer Class”

Freelancers have more in common with other workers than with small-business entrepreneurs.

Ashley Barron / Open Book Toronto

I got a strange call late last year from Duane Morris, an international law firm based in Philadelphia. The woman on the phone said that Duane Morris was working with former Sen. Blanche Lincoln and some of the world’s leading corporations, like Microsoft and Google, to build a “grassroots movement” to help freelancers.

I asked how this movement would do so, and she replied that employment law makes employers vulnerable to lawsuits and fines for intentionally misclassifying workers — calling workers independent contractors rather than permanent employees (who would be eligible for benefits). This “vulnerability” creates a disincentive to hire freelancers and is, according to the organizers of this “movement,” the biggest problem — bigger than getting health care, paying the bills, shouldering the crushing burden of student-loan debt, or accessing capital — facing freelancers today.

Since I’m a freelance writer and editor, she asked me, didn’t I want to join the fight for my freedom to operate my business?

The woman on the phone directed me to the new movement’s website — it was full of infotainment about defending freelancers’ right to run their businesses — not to mention crossword puzzles, stock photos of small-business owners, and a truly amazing Flash game in which the reader can throw snowballs at razor-toothed, tie-wearing zombie snowmen meant to represent politicians.

The website warned that laws like the Payroll Fraud Prevention Act and the Employee Misclassification Prevention act “could force thousands of people to close their businesses and fire employees. If this happens, there will be disastrous consequences to the economy.”

It was clear that this attempt at a scaremongering “grassroots movement” to make it easier for corporations to classify workers as temps was in fact about making it easier to deny benefits to a large sector of workers. Microsoft’s presence here was a dead giveaway — the software giant is notorious for such practices and has been sued several times by workers.

In an economic context in which a wider variety of workers than ever before, from Uber drivers to ER doctors to hairstylists, are being forced to work as “independent contractors” instead of being employed with some degree of stability, the problem isn’t that small businesses need freedom to operate — it’s that what used to be jobs are now considered small businesses.

Blurring the line between the working class and the petit-bourgeoisie clearly benefits big capital here — not people like me. I declined to join the “movement.”

Freelancers who don’t buy the argument that they’re the smallest part of big business often argue that they’re part of what’s come to be called the “precariat.” The term emerged out of the 2001 G8 protests in Genoa — a portmanteau of proletariat and precarious intended to describe the global trend away from formal employment and toward casualized, nonunion labor (especially in developed countries) and a growing informal sector (particularly in developing economies).

Since then there has been considerable debate about the term. Economist Guy Standing wrote a book about this new class, composed of “temporary and part-time workers, sub-contracted labour, call-centre employees, [and] many interns,” arguing that these workers are not part of the proletariat — which he defines in a shockingly narrow way as “workers in long-term, stable, fixed-hour jobs with established routes of advancement, subject to unionization and collective agreements, with job titles their fathers and mothers would have understood, facing local employers whose names and features they were familiar with.”

Other scholars question the classificatory implications of the term. Charlie Post argues that before World War I, “the vast majority of working people lived an incredibly precarious existence,” with little access to the sorts of jobs Standing classifies as “working class”; Jan Breman, in his review of Standing’s book, notes that in the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argue that one of the defining conditions of “proletarianization” is precarity: “Stripped of the means of subsistence on the land, workers could only survive by selling their labour.”

Compounding the confusion over how to understand and identify class in modern capitalism is the fact that freelancers, whose numbers have exploded in recent decades, are ideologically constructed as part of the petit-bourgeoisie, albeit the bottom rung, despite selling their labor for wages and often living hand to mouth, without access to health care or other benefits — a sort of “precari-bourgeoisie.”

Arguments from the top and from the bottom for the existence of this pseudo-class have popularized a number of myths about its members. Let’s look at a few of the most common to see whether this concept of the precari-bourgeoisie holds up.


The Extremely-Petit-Bourgeoisie

The designation of freelancers as a new entrepreneurial class — a group of extremely-petit-bourgeois mini-CEOs running small businesses that are poised to become true corporations — is one of the central myths connected to precarious work today.

I became a full-time freelance writer and editor in 2011 and, like most new freelancers, came face-to-face with the pervasive ideology of entrepreneurship. There’s a whole industry of books that propagate this myth, including The Wealthy Freelancer, The Well-Fed Writer, and — my personal favorite — The Hell Yeah Diaries: Uncensored Outbursts on the Path to 7 Figures. Be a six-figure freelancer! Take charge of your destiny! You’re not a freelancer, you’re the CEO of You, Incorporated!

The ideology is clear: adopt the mindset of a CEO and in no time you’ll be hiring employees, moving into a slick new office, and shopping for Ferraris. Dozens of business networking breakfasts promote this narrative. Should you choose to attend one, you’ll need to practice your elevator speech and exchange business cards with other working-class people wearing suits. Networking won’t make you rich, of course — you’ll most likely just agonize about the hour of productive time you’ve lost, then spend weeks fending off life-insurance salespeople.

The New York–based Freelancers Union (caution: not a real union) defines freelancers as “individuals who have engaged in supplemental, temporary, or project- or contract-based work in the past 12 months.” This definition fits 53 million Americans — 34 percent of the total national workforce. According to Freelancers Union founder Sara Horowitz, during “the Great Recession after 2008 the number of Americans starting their own businesses reached a fifteen-year high — and most were sole proprietors.”

The Freelancers Union recently surveyed 5,000 self-identified independent contractors and found that 40 percent of the independent workforce — 21.1 million people — make a living as independent contractors. Another 14.3 million freelance while holding down a day job full time. Another 9.3 million hold a part-time job to supplement freelance work, and 5.5 million are considered temps. Only 5 percent, 2.8 million, could be classified as freelance business owners, employing one to five other people.

As for those six-figure freelancers, they’re not actually making all of that money selling their labor piece rate or by the hour. Most make it by selling products — like e-books or pre-recorded classes on how to become a six-figure freelancer (available for just $49.95). They also do it by hiring employees or (more likely) contracting vendors and exploiting their labor — in other words, by transitioning into the ranks of the true petit-bourgeoisie. And, at least in most cases, making that transition requires access to capital.

In reality, class divides among freelancers mirror the class divides in the rest of society – freelancers, for the most part, remain members of the class they were members of before they started freelancing. The 99 percent, so to speak, of the freelance world remains in the working class, selling our labor as piecework, locked in the constant struggle with the capitalist class — now as clients rather than bosses — over the rate of exploitation of our labor (that is, how much we get paid).

Labeling freelancers entrepreneurs rather than workers saves capitalists a bundle on salaries, benefits, and wage taxes. Not surprisingly, misclassifying workers as independent contractors is an extremely common form of corporate fraud — precisely the type of fraud that the companies that hired Duane Morris want to legalize.

In addition, while it’s already difficult for workers who work in the same space, are paid standard wages, and have daily contact with each other — none of which most freelancers experience — independent contractors also have to contend with the Sherman Antitrust Act, which brands efforts to set standard industry wages as price-fixing and thus illegal.

While it’s certainly the case that class structures can and do change over time (as Bertell Ollman points out, Marx was quick to note this, especially in relation to the United States), it’s important to define them not with a list of attributes in common but in terms of the relations of production — the conflict that lies at the heart of all class struggle.

Aligning freelancers ideologically with the goals of the petit-bourgeoisie (which some Marxists also do, as Eric Olin Wright documents in Classes), even though most have far more in common with the working class, erects yet another barrier to prevent them from organizing and demanding rights as workers. As Richard Seymour puts it: “The attempt to obscure, or ‘disappear,’ the concept of class is a deliberate politicized mission.”


The Creative Class

What about the “creative class” of freelancers who view work as a labor of love, who put in long hours for sheer love of the game? As the saying goes, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life.”

In this view, creative work is the “antithesis of alienation” — as Nicole Cohen puts its — because cultural workers who deal in ideas or self-expression are granted “relative autonomy in the labor process,” with a degree of control and self-direction in their work. Working from home, in particular, frees the worker from the tight control of the employer — dress codes, Internet filters, and restrictions on breaks; capitalists have realized that, as Cohen describes it, “control over production can be surrendered if it is not an impediment to exploitation.” If the worker isn’t salaried, all that matters is whether the job gets done.

Freelancers are commonly thought of as working in creative, white-collar fields like media, publishing, and tech. But the category is actually quite expansive and includes people as varied as cabinet-makers, nannies, sex workers, insurance agents, administrative assistants, artists, translators and interpreters (and my own occupation, copy editors).

Some of these occupations, like artists and writers, are creative; some straddle the line between creativity and (more often) straightforward corporate production (translators, editors, and copywriters); others perform “noncreative” tasks like child care, sex work, surrogate childbearing, or housekeeping.

The reason the creative, media, and tech sectors are so often identified with freelancing is that these industries adopted the casualized freelance model much earlier and much more thoroughly than other industries. As Cohen points out, the shift to precarious forms of employment was pioneered in cultural industries, which have “serv[ed] as a model of flexible, project-based work for other industries.”

That model is now reproduced everywhere from universities to health care to hair salons. But working freelance doesn’t “mean an escape from exploitation or labor-capital antagonism,” as she notes — “corporations that rely on freelance labor have developed alternative methods of extracting surplus value from workers . . . including an increase in unpaid labor time and the aggressive pursuit of copyrights.” That unpaid time includes everything from researching and pitching articles to invoicing, project management, marketing and sales, and administrative work, all once the responsibility of the employer.

Now, there is a grain of truth here: creative labor can indeed be more fulfilling. Personally, I like working from home, editing for clients like Haymarket Books and Historical Materialism, a lot more than I liked editing corporate training materials in a windowless basement office. I do push myself to work long hours in order to take on projects I really love.

But the “portfolio career,” in which creative workers juggle multiple clients and simultaneous projects in order to make ends meet while using those projects to market their skills and land the next project, is a balancing act.

For every amazing biography of Frantz Fanon, there are many hours of proofreading corporate reports and writing websites for real-estate brokers to pay the rent, the student-loan debt, and the health insurance premiums.

The freelance writers surveyed by Cohen regarded serious, long-form journalism as a luxury, something they fit in around the tedious bill-paying gigs that took up the vast majority of their time. While freelancers do sometimes enjoy more “individuality . . . liberty, independence, and self-control” (as Marx put it) than in-house workers, it is tightly restricted by the necessity of selling your labor power in an atmosphere of increased competition and downward pressure on wages.


But It’s Voluntary!

Are freelancers pushed or do they jump? Does it matter?

People freelance for many reasons. Some really are in it for fortune and glory, as the stereotypes about carefree millennials would have it; the Freelancers Union survey found that many respondents had chosen freelance work and were happy with that choice.

There is no question that not having a boss has a great deal to offer: no office politics, no pantyhose, no sexual harassment from lecherous supervisors, no fetching anyone coffee, no commute. Freelancers also have the right to turn down projects, though that freedom of consent is contingent upon an abundance of work.

As appealing as these features are, though, they are not necessarily the material drivers of the decision to freelance.

A very large chunk of freelancers work as independent contractors because their industries have restructured, eliminating fixed employment and job security. In publishing and print media, for example, writers, editors, designers, and other media professionals now freelance because the industry is structured around a heavily exploited skeleton crew in the office and a reserve army of freelance labor to be subcontracted at will.

Others freelance because their industry restructured before they got there, or was created around the reserve-army model to begin with. This is particularly the case for younger workers in tech and digital media, where the kinds of stable jobs that Guy Standing would consider the jobs of the “true proletariat” never existed in the first place.

Finally, there’s a category, often underestimated, of workers who are forced into freelance work because the conditions of traditional employment have squeezed them out by refusing to accommodate workers’ basic human needs, like sick days and parental leave.

The Family Medical Leave Act, which allows some workers to take unpaid maternity leave, applies to less than 10 percent of all employers; the US and Papua New Guinea are the only countries in the world that do not guarantee any maternity leave by law.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, approximately 75 percent of full-time US workers and 27 percent of part-time workers have some paid sick days. The average full-time worker with a tenure of less than five years — the average length of employment — has eight to nine days of paid sick leave per year. This time may or may not also include vacation days, since many employers prefer a policy of “paid time off” to be used for illness or vacation.

Parents (particularly single parents) and people dealing with disabilities or chronic illness are faced with a choice: work sick and forgo needed medical care for themselves and their children, or face being fired under their employer’s attendance policy. If you can’t get disability or can’t afford to be a stay-at-home parent, the only choice left is freelancing. More than 40 percent of respondents to the Freelancers Union survey listed schedule flexibility as a primary motivation for freelancing.

Given that the burdens of child care and elder care are disproportionately placed on women, the gender balance of the freelance workforce is highly skewed. I recently attended a conference for freelance editors at which more than 75 percent of the attendees were female.

Surprisingly, recent Bureau of Labor Statistics findings show that the wage gap for women, which is 77 cents on the dollar for white women and as low as 51 cents for black and Latina women, appears to be mitigated or even eliminated in the freelance world, depending on other factors such as race. This suggests that some workers may calculate that employer discrimination makes the situation so impossible that they are better off fending for themselves, outside formal employment.

So can these workers be said to have jumped, or were they pushed?


The Impossible Class

We’re told over and over, in sad but dispositive tones, that the freelance sector is simply impossible to organize. The reality is that it remains to be determined, though it’s true that attempts to organize this sector have thus far proven unsuccessful.

There are a few ostensible unions independent workers can join: for example, the Freelancers Union, which provides freelance workers with advice, networking, discounts on business services, and, in some parts of the country, the opportunity to buy group health insurance. While the nonprofit advocates for freelancers’ interests, it does not organize or take part in wage conflicts or class struggle. Indeed, Atossa Abrahamian has argued that, by pacifying restive freelancers, the Freelance Union provides a valuable service to capital.

Other freelancers (myself included) belong to the National Writers Union (Local 1981 of the United Auto Workers), which was chartered as an independent organization of freelance writers in 1983 and became part of the UAW in 1991.

The NWU does intervene in wage disputes, in cases where there is exploitation that is egregious enough and collective enough to make organizing practical — for example, going after magazines that routinely cheat writers out of their pay. It also offers educational workshops and legal advice to members.

But neither of these organizations can be called a labor union in the traditional sense of the term, nor does either have much power to set wages. These methods of organizing still require some sort of concentration of labor to be effective.

Freelance workers may require new methods of organizing. One possibility might be joining in-house employees in their union activity — the current organizing efforts at Gawker Media might well prove instructive on this point.

But if part of what defines a class is class consciousness, it’s becoming increasingly clear, as low-wage workers fight for $15 and students begin refusing their debt burdens, that freelancers can no longer be written off as aligning ideologically with the petit-bourgeoisie. Freelancers increasingly come from working-class backgrounds, work for low wages, and share the primary interests — and the precarity — of the wider working class.

We are not a precari-bourgeoisie — we are the future of class struggle.