As U.S. union membership hits historic lows, one union is adding members: the Freelancers Union. According to Atossa Araxia Abrahamian writing in Dissent (Winter 2012), the organization boasts some 230,000 members.
Beyond its name, however, the outfit has little in common with trade unions. Most notably, it offers no collective bargaining power, nor the right to strike; in fact, it’s not legally incorporated as a union at all. Instead, the principal benefits of membership are access to lower-cost health care benefits and retirement investment.
The eight-year-old nonprofit is the brainchild of Sara Horowitz, who describes the association as a form of “new mutualism”–a kind of union 2.0 that seeks social change in creative collaboration.
Horowitz may be onto something. Since freelancers–graphic designers, software developers, writers, and other professionals–negotiate independent contracts with a variety of clients, collective bargaining isn’t very appealing. Where the union has begun to show some muscle is in lobbying against policies that unfairly target freelancers (who account for up to 30 percent of the workforce, according to the union).
In the state of New York the organization helped repeal laws that double-taxed self-employed workers, first as businesses, then as individual earners. Federal tax codes include similar provisions. The Freelancers Union is advocating for changes here, too.
These agendas have made for some unusual alliances; New York’s mayor Mike Bloomberg was an ally in the state code fight. Still, given the notoriously independent nature of freelancers, it’s perhaps fitting that their new and tentative collective voice should have a hint of the unorthodox in it.