The Entrepreneurial Union

Article excerpt

How the Freelancers Union is modernizing the labor movement for independent workers BY AMY WILKINSON

When the Internet company that Karen Kelly worked for was sold and her job disappeared, she set out to become a freelance writer in New York City. Married to a musician and raising a young son, she struggled to find affordable health care.

Across the country in Pasadena, Calif., Colleen Nelson had a different problem. As a media consultant, she had steady work with MGM Film Studios. But, working from home, she felt isolated

Both women eventually found their way to the Freelancers Union, a Brooklyn, N.Y. -based nonprofit that provides self-employed workers with health insurance, retirement plans, community events, and political representation. Unlike most employee benefits in the United States, which are tied to particular companies, the Freelancers Union's offerings can travel with independent workers fromjob to job and from project to projecL

Through the Freelancers Union, Kelly purchased health insurance for herself and her family. She also met an accountant at a tax workshop, and improved her Web site "2,000 percent" after attending a union-sponsored Web design seminar, she says. Meanwhile, Nelson began collaborating with likeminded union members in Los Angeles. "The Freelancers Union provides a sense of stability knowing that there is a place to go to get help, contacts, ideas, and other resources," says Nelson. "It's daunting working on your own."

Today, 26 percent of U.S. workers are self-employed as Web designers, software developers, financial advisors, artists, writers, musicians, and consultants - to name a few occupations. This number is up from 19 percent in 2006, reports Kelly Services Inc., a Troy, Mich.-based staffing service. The rise of the free agent economy is allowing more and more people to be their own bosses, liberating them from the confines of a traditional office. It also allows companies to cut costs to meet changing market demands.

With the freedom and flexibility of self-employment, however, come the trade-offs of stability andjob security. Freelance paychecks can be erratic. Freelance contractors must pay out of pocket for their own health insurance and retirement plans, and they rarely qualify for unemployment.

To meet the needs of the growing freelance workforce, Sara Horowitz created the precursor to the Freelancers Union, called Working Today, in 1995. (The organization still conducts research and policy analysis.) In 2001, she launched the first version of a new union, the Portable Benefits Network, which was renamed the Freelancers Union in 2003. The Freelancers Union is not just another labor organization. Instead, it updates classic trade unionism with the modern impulses of social entrepreneurship, supporting itself largely with fees for services. At the same time, the Freelancers Union reveals its trade union spirit by working through political channels to secure better conditions for independent workers.

By making the right innovations at the right time, the organization now has some 115,000 members from all 50 states. And in the last 18 months alone, its membership has grown by 86 percent. For her efforts to create a new social safety net, Horowitz won a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Fellowship in 1999.

"The Freelancers Union is writing new rules for the new workforce," says Cheryl Dorsey, president of Echoing Green, a nonprofit that supports social entrepreneurs, including Horowitz and her organization. "Sara's great insight was to recognize that the social safety net that followed Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal no longer meets the needs of the freelance workforce."

UNION BUSINESS

Horowitz comes from a long line of labor organizers. Her grandfather was vice presi dent of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union in New York, and her father was a union lawyer. "I came to social entrepreneurship accidentally," she says. …