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The Freelancer's Union


by Tristan Trout



Earlier this year, I told the story of my friend Sara, who, despite her skill and devotion to her job, was left up unemployment creek without a paddle when her company decided that it would be cheaper to "outsource." The story, which was, in many ways, a continuation of the case for a white-collar union, concluded with the radical thought: "Why don't IT workers unionize?"

Corporate Mofo is, obviously, for the working stiff, and the simple fact of the matter is that the average working stiff isn't doing so well-as is amply demonstrated by the response our first two articles generated. Despite legal decisions such as Vizcaino v. Microsoft Corp (in which the Ninth Circuit basically ruled that if someone comes to your office every day and you pay them, then, yes, they do work for you), the fact remains that today both the law and managerial practice are leaning towards building a "flexible" workforce, that is, one where employees are responsible to the company, but the company is not responsible to the employees. Roughly 30% of the nation's workforce is made up of "independent contractors," freelancers, and the self-employed.

New Deal compromises, such as job security, partnership between management and labor, and decent wages and benefits, ensured a reasonable standard of living for the common working person in the Golden Age of America (which lasted from roughly the end of World War II to the 1980s). Meanwhile, those of us who carry our own health insurance and who can be laid off on a whim find ourselves living in a new age of anxiety. We do not receive tax credit for our health insurance premiums; nor, despite the fact that we're not actually "employed" by our employers, are we allowed to claim overtime if we work more than 35 hours a week. The result is that, though two-career households are today the norm, we expect a much lower standard of living than did our parents' generation.

While free-for-all capitalism may sound good on paper—especially for those terrified of government paternalism in other spheres of life—it is the biggest dogs, the SOBs who control the wages and the lobbyists and the media, who will always win. The fact of the matter is that human civilization cannot exist without government; while we may try to limit its influence, it is not going away—and, as with this most recent round of cuts in taxes for the rich and services for the common people, the government can either work for us, or it can work for other people. We are a nation of Davids terrified by a few Goliaths, unaware that if we work together, we can indeed make a change.

Enter the Freelancers' Union. The FU had its genesis as part of the advocacy group Working Today's attempt to bring regular-job benefits to the irregular workers of New York's Silicon Alley, and was given its current name on May Day of 2003 to coincide with a citywide awareness campaign. Based in Brooklyn and run by long-time public advocate Sara Horowitz, the Union currently offers services ranging from health, life, and disability insurance to 401(K)s and mutual-fund plans. Even though its activities are currently limited to the New York City Area, the Union already has over 2,000 members, and hopes to expand nationwide.

More importantly, the Freelancers Union serves as a voice for us working stiffs in government, counterbalancing the heavy-hitting lobbyists hired by large corporations. The law was not designed with independent workers in mind: We traditionally get screwed on such matters as unemployment insurance (despite paying taxes, we have no access to the unemployment fund if we have a dry spell, say, as a result of September 11), antidiscrimination protection (the Civil Rights Act of 1964 often doesn't apply if you're not an employee, and is hard to prove in any case) and, in New York City, the heavy self-employment taxes. Already, the FU has been making its voice heard in trying to change this state of affairs, contacting candidates in the New York State gubernatorial race and letting them know that the problem of middle-class poverty is a very real one.

The Freelancer's Union is an idea whose time has come. We strongly encourage all Corporate Mofos to visit their Web site, to see if they qualify for membership, and, if so, to sign up for their reduced-cost health insurance. If you're not in the New York area, then we strongly encourage you to see what you can do about setting up a chapter in your locale.

And remember: We're all in this together.


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Posted June 23, 2005 1:16 AM






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