By STEVEN GREENHOUSE
Published: January 27, 2007
New York Times
Herding freelancers is a bit like herding cats. Both are notoriously independent.
Nonetheless, Sara Horowitz has figured out a way to bring together tens of thousands of freelancers — Web designers, video editors, writers, dancers and graphic artists — into a thriving organization.
Ms. Horowitz has founded the Freelancers Union, offering members lower-cost health coverage and other benefits that many freelancers often have a hard time getting.
A former labor lawyer, Ms. Horowitz intends to form a forceful advocacy group for freelancers and independent contractors, the most mobile members of an increasingly mobile work force. In addition, she is trying to adapt unions to a world far different from yesteryear, when workers often remained with one employer for two or three decades.
“This really is about a new unionism,” she said, “and what it means is to bring people together to solve their problems.”
Having signed up 40,000 freelancers from the New York area, she is now planting her group’s flag across the nation, hoping to herd far more of the nation’s 20 million freelancers and independent contractors into her union.
“These workers are the backbone for so many industries vital to our nation’s economy — I.T., financial services, the arts, advertising and publishing,” she said. “Yet these same workers are not afforded simple job protections or a social safety net.”
By creating a new type of union for nontraditional workers, Ms. Horowitz hopes to help revive the labor movement. Its membership has slipped to just 7.4 percent of the private-sector work force, down from one-third in 1960.
Unlike traditional unions, the Freelancers Union has no intention of bargaining with employers. Still, Ms. Horowitz says her group’s main goal is identical to that of all unions — providing mutual aid, in this case health benefits, to their members.
“More and more people are not going to get their benefits from an employer,” Ms. Horowitz said. “Our ultimate goal is to update the New Deal. It is to create a new safety net that’s connected to the individual as they move from job to job.”
Jennifer Lebin joined the Freelancers Union while living in Manhattan after seeing one of its subway ads that say, “Welcome to Middle-Class Poverty.” Ms. Lebin, a political consultant, bought the group’s health coverage and paid $20 to attend a union-sponsored seminar offering tax advice to consultants and independent contractors.
Ms. Lebin, who has moved to Chicago, expressed disappointment that she could no longer use the union’s health plan — doctors in Illinois are not part of the network. “If there is a way that the Freelancers Union could offer the same benefits to members outside the New York area, I’d sign up in a heartbeat,” she said.
The Freelancers Union, which sells benefits à la carte, hopes to offer health benefits in 10 states by the end of this year. It is already offering its discounted disability and life insurance nationwide.
More than 14,000 freelancers in the New York area have bought its health insurance, generally for about $300 a month, some 40 percent below what they would normally pay elsewhere. The organization has also used its group purchasing power to help freelancers obtain discounted dental, disability and life insurance.
Membership in the Freelancers Union is free. To finance itself, the group uses an entrepreneurial model: it earns modest commissions on the benefits that its members buy.
Robert Bruno, a professor of labor relations at the University of Illinois at Chicago, praised the group’s innovative approach, although he said it could not replace traditional unions.
“This needs to be part of labor’s repertoire,” Professor Bruno said. “To the degree it helps to reshape what we’ve come to understand what a labor organization is, it’s all to the good.”
Ms. Horowitz, 44, won a MacArthur genius award in 1999 after she established Working Today, a group based in Brooklyn that focused on providing benefits to New Yorkers in flexible work arrangements. She founded the Freelancers Union in 2003, with a more ambitious vision.
The group intends to do advocacy work just like a labor union. In New York, it is backing legislation to let freelancers obtain unemployment insurance. Even if freelancers are laid off after working for an employer for two years, they cannot receive unemployment benefits because they are considered independent contractors.
Some members do not expect the group to play the role of a traditional union.
“Unions represent members in negotiating wages and benefits,” said Barbara Scott, an artist in Berlin Center, Ohio. “I don’t see the Freelancers Union functioning that way. I see it as a networking tool.”
Bobby Ambrose, a graphic designer in Chicago, disagreed.
“I was hoping that they would be like a labor union,” Mr. Ambrose said. “There are a lot of situations that freelancers face regarding pay rates and job hours, like when you’re doing full-time work when you’re only hired to be part time. It would be nice if they could push to make things better.”
Several traditional unions are studying the freelance union’s progress, perhaps to borrow some ideas on organizing nonunion workers and offering benefits.
“The labor movement,” Ms. Horowitz said, “went from guilds through mutual aid societies through craft unions and through industrial unionism. You’re not going to persuade me that there is not going to be a new form of unionism. The story’s not over on what we’re creating.”