When Sara Horowitz founded the Freelancers Union in 1995, there was already evidence that the structure of people's work lives was changing.
Publishing and media jobs had started to move to more project-based work. Horowitz, a union organizer and labor lawyer by training, assumed that other industries would follow. As an expert in labor unions, she thought “it was really important to start thinking about how people [can] come together” to change laws and public policy, so that freelancers can obtain job-related “benefits—and community.”
Today, the Brooklyn-based Freelancers Union boasts nearly 300,000 members, having quadrupled in numbers in just seven years. Freelancers in the union include technology consultants, copywriters, web designers, visual artists, business-development consultants, journalists, and professional coaches. They live all over the country, with concentrations in New York, New Jersey, and California.
Besides offering freelancers a sense of camaraderie, the union offers: its own health-insurance plan; networking and education events; free advice on the freelance business, dispensed through its blog and social media; and discounts on dental, disability, and life insurance, through vendors vetted by the union. For New York City members, the union also runs two primary-care health clinics—requiring no co-pays—and community spaces with free yoga classes. Best of all, membership is free; the union supports itself with a fee on health insurance and other services it provides.
The intention is to give freelancers perks they'd receive if they held full-time jobs, which fewer and fewer workers do, sometimes involuntarily. Rather than mourn an era's passing, Horowitz says, the Freelancers Union has tried to forge a new way to think about supporting workers in the gig economy. “What happens … is that people start living their lives,” she adds, “and they've started to put together their lives in really different ways.”