Q&A with Freelancers Union Founder Sara Horowitz
Labor law has failed to evolve alongside a changing labor market. Some labor leaders have been moving ahead anyway.
The Freelancers Union is a non-profit organization 500,000 members nationwide. Sara Horowitz founded the union in 1995 and led its growth until 2018. Rafael Spinal became executive director earlier this year. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Mutualism: A New Social Contract for a New Economy (RandomHouse, February 2021). American Compass executive director Oren Cass asked her a few questions about lessons learned creating a different kind of union and what the future could hold for worker organizations.
Oren Cass: Tell us a little bit more about what drew you to the Freelancers Union concept and what it became.
Sara Horowitz: I’ve come to realize how much my family’s background influenced my thinking, though I think I realize it now much more than I did when I was building up the Freelancers Union. I come from a labor tradition that was of the 1920s, where unions built housing and insurance companies and banks, and it was very entrepreneurial. Instead of being focused on a kind of extractive-profit-seeking model, it really was about building things that workers needed.
I’ve been working for unions since I was 18. Then I myself was made an independent contractor when I was a lawyer in the early 1990s. That experience really made me think, “Wow. We have to start to think about what this next world is going to look like.” And instead of just thinking about it, I really wanted to be a doer and to start to build out the Freelancers Union. So I just started it and went from there.
OC: The Freelancers Union does so many things, but what would you say are the two or three core functions that have proven to be most valuable and important?
SH: If people take away one thing about labor, I think the most important thing is that unions have to have their own independent source of revenue. It can’t be foundation-funded entirely, nor can it be government-funded entirely, nor can it be employer-funded. People have forgotten this notion of independent financing. Of course, in the case of unions, that’s through dues. What I think is so important about what the Freelancers Union did was it said in this next era, people are going to be working for so many different employers, we have to think about the kind of economic model it can operate on. So the Freelancers Union did that through services. I would say that was the most important thing.
It’s also important because in the social sector now it has become common to build political models first and not to think about the economic model, but I think that fails to ground us in the everyday, which is vital for more mature and complex politics. By building the economic base first you have some staying power. You can marinate, you can learn, you can watch, and then you build your political base.
OC: That really highlights this foundational element of American labor, where everything is tied to the workplace and the election. Organizing is a political task, and if you succeed then the dues just follow. Whereas in Europe, unions are things people have to sign up for. To what extent do you think the freelancer-type model, which is really just that of an independent labor organization, is something that could be equally attractive to non-freelancers? Call it the Non-Freelancer Union—essentially what the Freelancers Union is, just for people with regular jobs.
SH: It’s funny, because when people look at the Freelancers Union model, they’ll often say, “It could be like AARP, but for workers,” or something like that. But it has to have solidarity. People have to have some connection to one another based on their craft, or their field, or their profession or their job. And I think faith in an AARP-type model has gotten organizers into trouble in some ways because it leads to think about things very transactionally. You get a set of services, you pay for it, it does some generalized political work for you.
AARP has been amazing in preserving social security through many, many different administrations, most of which were not so favorable. So hats off to them. But I do think that there’s a realization right now that we need each other more. That we really don’t trust our institutions, which feel far away from us. And that if we can feel that connection to other people, I think that’s going to be the winning way.
Freelancers Union has a really interesting on-the-ground program called SPARK, which is in about 20 cities run by Freelancer leaders. So pretty much every major area that has a lot of freelancers has a Freelancers Union presence where people come and meet and have meals together, that kind of thing.
It has to have solidarity. People have to have some connection to one another based on their craft, or their field, or their profession or their job.
OC: That was going to be my next question—How do you promote solidarity? Because in a sense, an emphasis on an economic model and an emphasis on solidarity are very different. The first is, “Send us your money and we send you something of value.” Solidarity’s obviously more than that. So what has been the key to actually achieving solidarity within the Freelancers Union?
SH: I think that solidarity has two critical elements. One is economic interconnection, and the second is something spiritual—something greater than yourself. When people are sitting down and having a meal or solving a problem together, or enjoying something together, that’s where the solidarity develops. When we started building out the Freelancers Union, we had many different ways that people could get together. But SPARK, to me, has been the model for how you can have distributed networks so that people can get together in their local community, and at the same time those local community leaders are also embedded in deep networks in their local area.
OC: Was the Freelancers Union able to take any collective action, either in terms of bargaining or otherwise, or has it been entirely benefits-focused?
SH: Well first, benefits provision is a form of collective action—you could often even call it collective bargaining, though not in the traditional labor relations terminology—because you’re going collectively into the market to buy services that individuals could not otherwise access. But another example is that the Freelancers Union had a really interesting campaign that we won called, “Freelance Isn’t Free.” One of the biggest problems facing freelancers is that they do work and they don’t get paid. I’m sure small businesses have the same issue, but it’s a really huge problem for freelancers who just don’t have other kinds of stabilizing income, and who aren’t eligible for unemployment insurance typically.
We put together this amazing coalition of low-wage workers and professional workers to advance a bill that would protect freelancers—really strong unions like SEIU’s 32BJ, the teachers union, and one of the Chambers of Commerce came out in support. It passed the New York City Council unanimously with Republicans and Democrats both supporting it, because it was kind of a no-brainer. Who on earth thinks it’s okay for people routinely not to be paid? And it really had teeth. It still exists. It’s double damages and attorney’s fees and a fine if you don’t have a contract.
For me, it really showed that we are at a crossroads when we look at labor right now. We have one option of retrofitting the New Deal, looking back and seeing how to just kind of shoehorn ourselves into those protections. Or, we can say we really are in a new era and we really need a new infrastructure. But the second one doesn’t mean that you do away with the first. I think the American labor movement would be completely supportive of a new-era set of benefits if there were a transition plan that supported all workers. But instead we get into this really difficult situation where we can’t move forward and we keep looking back, and we’ve been doing that for like 50 years now.
OC: Let’s talk about the infrastructure. I’m curious to what extent you found the existing legal framework constructive, irrelevant, or an obstacle to what something like the Freelancers Union does? And what do you see as the key reforms we should be pursuing to adapt the broader system to modern realities?
SH: I think the real issue is what we mean when we say “pro-worker.” To me, that means pro-Institution-of-the-Worker. We got that from the New Deal and we got it right. We can’t just keep making people atomized individuals. They have to be part of their union. The future agenda has to further that realization that at the core of this is an institution, and the institution itself has to adapt. We had craft work in the 1800s, we had industrial work in the 1900s, and now we have new and different kinds of work. You don’t get rid of the safety net of the past, but you have to provide the safety net of the future. That’s what brings us to the conversation about misclassification and independent contractors.
The real issue is what we mean when we say 'pro-worker.' To me, that means pro-Institution-of-the-Worker. We can't just keep making people atomized individuals. They have to be part of their union.
We just have to start to say, “No, it’s all workers.” And we have to have protections that are completely portable, and the worker has to be able to dock on to the institution that she or he belongs to and cares about. So number one, we have to enable people to group together. Those groupings have to be mission-based. Some people might say, “Well, that sounds like association health plans. That would be great.” But I don’t think it should be groups driven by that kind of profit motive. I think it should be nonprofit and social-sector actors, and they should be held to a really high standard. And in return for meeting that high standard, they should be able to get patient capital that’s privileged by the tax code.
OC: To your earlier point, the economic model needs to rely on funding from the members themselves. But then say a little bit more about the patient capital concept. How does that fit in?
SH: My book, Mutualism, is really about the idea for this structure. It’s not just a nonprofit because we have plenty of charities out there and we have nonprofit advocacy groups, but that’s really different than the provision of the safety net. What we have to do is have groups that demonstrate that they have members or that they serve a community, that they are institutions and have a board and bylaws, and that they have some economic resources through dues from their community of interest. These can be co-operatives, businesses that are run by faith-based organizations, mutual aid societies, and of course, unions.
Unions are in a perfect position to fit in this institutional framework because they already have Taft-Hartley funds and benefit funds. That’s what can make this the next big idea because the second you say this—you can just imagine the ERISA lawyers out there kind of pulling out their hair at all the different permutations this could have. And I say, bring it on. Now’s the time. We have to evolve and pivot. We don’t have to do it in one fell swoop, we can do these in a series of pilots and start to learn and see how it goes.
Eventually, the idea of mutualism is that we could have a whole sector in the economy that’s focused on these kinds of cooperatives, which mutual-aid and faith-based groups could look to for delivery of the safety net. It will take the kind of imagination that building the New Deal and the progressive era took, but that’s really going to be where we start to build the next safety net that makes it so that workers in America do well again.
OC: When you think about the functions of these organizations, whether we call them unions or otherwise, there’s a solidarity and mutual-aid function and then there’s a benefits function. It seems like what’s potentially missing is the actual collective-bargaining function. Thinking about your priorities and what is most important from a policy perspective, do you see a mechanism by which these kinds of organizations can also play a collective-bargaining role? Or does it feel to you like the 21st-century model is just going to be less about bargaining and more about support for workers outside of the employment relationship?
SH: The really important point about collective bargaining is that when we invested unions with the ability to engage in collective bargaining, we also said that they would not be in violation of antitrust laws. So the moment that you let these new groups have that same ability and let unions bring in new kinds of workers, I think you would start to see (a) bargaining becomes a priority, and (b) it can’t just be with a particular employer. I would love to see the day when we could have sectoral bargaining. But I think that we have to think carefully about the mechanism because we’re talking about different kinds of workers. Job tenure is going to be shorter. Some freelancers are in the gig economy, which means they’re drivers for Uber and Lyft. Others are professional freelancers who work on a variety of jobs and gigs. You have some employees and some independent contractors.
But there’s another element when talk about solidarity and collective bargaining, and that’s the check on corporate power. One of the most important roles that the trade-union movement plays is it has a sophisticated mindset about what’s happening in the economy. When I think about the heyday of labor, it was clear that the trade unions of that generation towered above the leaders of the companies that they went against. When you have a really excellent trade-union movement that’s empowered and isn’t always fighting for its life, it actually can be in a position to make the right kinds of arguments.
One of the things I’ve come to think a lot about is that we are so crazed over free trade versus protectionism, but I think we have to pick some industries that we’re going to be promoting that can really pay a certain amount of money for workers. And that’s the kind of thing that unions have a lot of opinions about and where they can play a constructive balancing role.
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