Sara Horowitz, the Freelancers Union, and the future of unionism
The old unions have largely failed in their mission to promote the interests of the workers. They were effective when white male salaried workers in the industrial sector were the norm. Since then, they’ve suffered a long slow painful death and even given the word ‘unionism’ a bad rep.
But unionism is not dead yet. Sara Horowitz became the hero of a growing number of freelance workers when she founded the Freelancers Union twenty years ago. She is showing the way for other countries as well. What if unionism still had a future?
For over thirty years the steady decline of unionism has gone hand in hand with that of Western middle classes and the sharp increase in income inequalities. The unionized workforce in the USA has hit a historic low as only 11% of all workers are now unionized, with 6.6% only in the private sector, down from a peak of 35% in the 1950s. Since the 1980s American corporations have successfully managed to get rid of unions and cut labor costs. But the decline of labor unions was not only caused by evil labor-bashing ideologues and corporations. No, the decline was also the unions’ own doing. Corruption (think Jimmy Hoffa and other corrupt union bosses), conservative rent-seeking positions, lack of innovation and ideas dominated, against the economic interests of company, country and other workers (in particular, women who didn’t work in the industry).
Unions fit the industrial world and were meant to defend and protect the interests of a male salaried working class when all people from the male salaried working class had common interests and were politically organized. Unions were a fantastic political force that could crown and uncrown politicians (think Labour Party in the UK and Democratic Party in the US).
As we’re moving away from the old paradigm of the post-war boom years, let’s face it, the old unions have become largely irrelevant as they have been unable to reinvent themselves. In the public sector for example they’ve consistently protected seniority over talent and merit, and completely prevented innovation. Take France, which used to have amazing public services and an education system that made the whole world envious. Well, public sector unions have contributed to levelling down all talent and to seriously diminishing the quality of those services. Defending quantity over quality, seniority over talent, mediocrity over ambition. Their biggest feast is that they’ve made all mediocre civil servants virtually impossible to fire and prevented the ambitious from rising. They’ve even turned “ambition” into a dirty word.
No wonder unions are the mere shadow of what they once were. However the idea of collective bargaining and activism should not die. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? Just because the old unions have failed doesn’t mean the principle of collective bargaining doesn’t have a future. Radical transformations have made the old paradigm largely irrelevant: the rise of the services sector and of female workers, the relocation of industrial work to poor countries, and then the rise of non-salaried workers not employed directly by the companies that buy their services. A growing mass of free electrons (who have not always chosen to be “free”) who have little negotiating power (unless they’re rockstars) are now redefining work relations.
The old paradigm’s institutions —public and private— are not adapted to these workers. Before Obamacare in the US, a freelance worker with diabetes could not get medical coverage because all insurance companies would refuse coverage to people with pre-existing conditions. Likewise, the French social security system is not meant for people who switch employers often with breaks in between, and is not meant for freelance workers either. Independent workers don’t enjoy unemployment benefits, and can only hope for very weak pensions. (Traditionally, independent workers used to have something to liquidate when they retired —a shop or a business, for example— but now they seldom do.)
But happily we don’t have to make do with the grim picture of the mismatch between faulty unions and the fast-changing economy. Digital workers ARE REINVENTING UNIONISM as I write. An innovation mindset combined with the network effects of digital platforms make new organisations possible. Sara Horowitz is the woman who best embodies this future. Born into labor activism —her grandfather was a union man, the president of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union— she founded the Freelancers Union about twenty years ago. And it is now the leading organization of independent workers.
The first focus early on was healthcare for those working as freelancers in the emerging ‘gig’ economy. Now there are 53 million freelancers in the US healthcare market. The union served freelancers very well as early as in 2001 when it offered affordable group rate health coverage for independent workers. In 2008 it led to the creation of an actual health insurance company that covers more than 25,000 New York freelancers. “It used to be that when it came to health insurance, independent workers had two bad options -navigate the individual market alone and pay exorbitant rates, or roll the dice and go without — that’s why we launched the Portable Benefits Network in 2001, and Freelancers Insurance Company in 2008,” Sara Horowitz explains. “Today the challenge is no longer just finding insurance — it’s also finding the best, coordinated care that meets the needs of the nation’s 53 million independent workers.”
The Freelancers Union accelerated awareness and change for the millions of independent workers in the US, long BEFORE the digital workers of the ‘gig’ economy made freelancing so visible, long before Uber drivers became the object of so many discussions (are they employees or not?) and controversies. That activism and growing awareness made Obamacare possible in 2010. Coverage is now mandatory for everyone, insurance companies can’t exclude people with ‘pre-existing conditions’ and independent workers (as well as everyone else) can find (almost) affordable coverage in Obamacare ‘Exchanges’ (online marketplaces for health insurance). The Freelancers Union is forcing public and private institutions to adapt to new forms of work at a faster rate than anywhere else.
Like ‘feminism’, ‘unionism’ is a dirty word that needs reinventing. Sara Horowitz demonstrates beautifully that the concept of unionism isn’t dead. She’s showing the way for other countries. The mantra “Freelancers of the world, unite” resonates more and more in France where new platforms (Weslash), insurance startups (Wemind), books and articles (in French) show that something might be happening there too.
Laetitia Vitaud with Switch Collective
=> Follow me on Twitter here!