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.

John Russo

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2 Responses to Crossroads: American Labor, the Freelancers Union, and Precarity

  1. J. Entin says:

    Terrific post, John. I think the point you make at the end is crucial: current conditions demand that we expand, enrich and revise our sense of what the working class is and can be in political, cultural and theoretical terms. I hope this will be a topic of open discussion at the LAWCHA/WCSA conference in May. Again, thanks!

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  2. Fred Anderson says:

    Because my thoughts are hazy & il-formed, I hesitate to throw them out here. But following Bacon’s guidance, that “truth proceeds more readily from error than from confusion,” here are some potential errors for the reader to chew upon.

    I think I see a crucial difference between the industrial union and the freelancers. In the former case, labor & capital worked together to produce a joint product. And the contest between them was over who got what share of that joint product. They were trapped with each other, since neither could produce their joint product alone. (And some became so embroiled in that contest that they destroyed their mutually beneficial relationship — think Bulwarism.)

    But in the freelance case, the truly freelance worker is really an independent small businessperson supplying his/her own capital. The problem is not “how shall we divide the spoils between capital & labor,” since the freelancer holds both. Rather the problem is how do I sell enough of what I make at a high enough price to provide me with a fair return on my investment of labor AND capital. This is really more of a marketing problem: Where can I find enough customers and how do I convince them my services are worth a handsome price.

    The second is a quality issue — does the quality of what I do justify a handsome price (or is it coarse and of little value — worth no more than what can be readily obtained elsewhere. “Readily” here likely means cheaply.) Success here requires differentiation. “You can’t get it this good elsewhere.” This is generally an effectiveness question: Is my product effective for the customer’s purpose? And MORE effective than what others offer.

    The former — “where do I find enough customers” — is usually greatly facilitated by a low price. (Uh, oh!) This is an efficiency question: How can I produce a lot of this (whatever it is that I do) cheaply? (So that I can sell it cheaply and still make a living.) And yes, efficiency & effectiveness tend to be at war with one another: It is easy to make a highly desirable product if you don’t care how much it costs to do it.

    I believe that the freelancer’s capital generally facilitates BOTH greater efficiency and greater effectiveness. And for most of our freelancers, their capital is usually human capital — particularly, their education / their knowhow: “I know how to do this well, and I know how to do this efficiently.”

    To move forward, I would focus on (at least) three things: (1) How can we improve the human capital of these workers. Esp., can we make their educations more relevant — e.g., contract law vs. music appreciation. Or where the key skills are tacit, how can we get more apprenticeships and/or work-study co-op programs. And (2) How do we reduce the thicket of regulation, generally designed to rein in the large corporations, which can be nearly impenetrable for the freelancer / entrepreneur. (Ironically, this benefits the big corporations, since they have the teams of lawyers & accountants to deal with it, while the contract pizza-delivery driver does not.) And (3), where the freelancer needs physical capital (e.g., a car to deliver pizzas with) how can we make it easier for them to get that? Again, current regulation — particularly banking regulation that emphasizes an avoidance of risky lending — tends to make it hard for them to borrow.

    I’m aware that the above probably skips over the situation of a lot of freelancers. What else have I missed?

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