Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

John Russo Research Fellow, Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University

Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

Several weeks ago, I attended the “The American Labor at a Crossroads: New Thinking, New Organizing, New Strategies” Conference in Washington, DC, sponsored by The American Prospect, the Sidney Hillman Foundation, and the Albert Shanker Institute. It was nice to see many old friends with whom I had worked as a Labor Studies Professor for 35 years. It was especially nice see David Moberg, labor journalist at In These Times.

We recalled the many “Labor at the Crossroads” conferences we had attended beginning with the crisis in the steel industry and the beginnings of deindustrialization in the 1970s. Most of these conferences accomplished little and had minimal impact on union leaders who rarely attended and were sometimes overwhelmed by the pace of change and the forces arrayed against them. But the program for last week’s conference looked different, and the conference ultimately felt different. As I said to the organizers, the panels and discussions were unusually frank, and some of the best were led by young people, women, and people of color.

Some both within and outside of the American labor movement have pronounced its impending death. But as Lance Compa has pointed out, plenty of successful union organizing is happening in traditional, largely stable industries and companies in manufacturing, transportation, communication, health care, food processing, and the public sector. Further, unions are a potent political force in advancing labor and civil rights in coastal and Midwest battleground states where urban density is the greatest. They have been powerful advocates for minimum wage increases and the expansion of health care for all working people. Taken together, Compa estimated that about 20% of all workers who are able to organize under US labor law are organized. The struggle for labor movement lies with the other 80%, especially those with those who experience unstable wages and working conditions and even those who embrace intermittent employment.

In the past, unions largely ignored these workers, finding them difficult to organize under current labor law and union strategies. But these workers have begun to organize themselves, in some cases with union backing. At the conference, we heard speakers from National Guest Workers Alliance, the Texas Workers Defense Project, the fast food worker campaign, and many “alt-union” organizing efforts involving day laborers, adjunct faculty, domestic workers, home healthcare workers, and regional and national worker centers.

One the most important speakers was Sara Horowitz, executive director of the Freelancers Union. The Freelancers Union (FU) wants to organize the 53 million self-employed workers, a growing portion of the labor market as the structure of work is changing. FU researchers found that 40% of these workers were true independent contractors, while another 23% were moonlighters trying to make ends meet. Put differently, the self-employed sector is diverse, ranging from members of the professional managerial class (salariat) to the working classes, and all experience some degree of casualization and/or precarity.

Horowitz believes the labor movement must recognize that both work and individuals are changing in cultural and economic ways. Some people, she argues, embrace flexibility and reject traditional work organizations and consumption patterns. They do not accept the work-spend cycle and are comfortable living with less. Instead of aspiring to home or car ownership, they prefer to rent or share. They seek a fuller life away from work, based on communities, networks, and neighborhoods. Horowitz calls this Freelance 360,which embraces a “new mutualism” that includes building “smarter solutions to health care, retirement, wage security, and other broken systems.” The FU’s goal is to develop sustainable work communities, networks, and co-ops in the growing informal and unstable work environment through “a spirit of collaboration and mutual support” and “building meaningful connected lives and thriving local communities.” This vision of a sharing economy has attracted both interest and critique.

In the last 15 years, FU has organized various networking events as well as an on-line freelancers network to share information, ideas, and potential collaborations. Its website provides important information for freelancers on health-related issues and insurance, taxes, wage rates and fringe benefits, business models, and marketing strategies. Participants also share information on clients. The FU has also published a Freelancers Bible that provides career information and a clever YouTube video that explains what it is trying to accomplish and why.

Some mainstream unionists at the conference may have felt threatened by Horowitz’s remarks. I think this fear is misguided. The FU is not challenging traditional organizing at brick and mortar sites with fixed hours and working conditions. Rather, it is simply suggesting that traditional methods and issues are inappropriate when work has become more informal, flexible, and episodic. Given the history of the labor movement, the tension was not unexpected even at a conference built around experimentation in thinking, organizing, and strategies.

The shift in thinking that FU advocates suggests the value of a broader definition of “working class,” one that includes the precariat along with more traditional workers. Over the last few years on Working-Class Perspectives, Guy Standing, Tim Strangleman and I have considered the definitions, conditions, and issues associated with the growing precariat. In the coming months, we will continue to examine changes in work and the growth of the precariat. For example, Guy Standing will comment on how we might define workers and the labor process in the on-demand economy. Tim Strangleman will look at some corporate origins of the fissuring workplace that has become a source of precarity. Sherry Linkon will consider cultural representations of precarity.

We have not abandoned our focus on working-class life and culture. Rather, we recognize that a growing number people, including many who once saw themselves as part of a privileged middle class, are now experiencing working-class insecurity and have found that they are one job from poverty. And just as we have long argued for the value (and values) of working-class life and culture while also tracing its struggles, we need to examine both the opportunities and costs of the new economy, in individual and political terms.

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This has been reposted from Working-Class Perspectives.

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Image by Chris Potter.

John Russo is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Metropolitan Institute of Virginia Tech University, in Arlington.  Until December, 2012, he was Director of the Labor Studies Program and Co-Director of the Center for Working-Class Studies at Youngstown State University.

Posted In: Allied Approaches, From Center for Working-Class Studies

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