This past weekend the New York Times wrote an article on the Freelancers Union, the new labor movement seeking to address the concerns of the New American Precariat. The precariat is the class of workers who are employed in precarious types of labor and lack job security, e.g. freelancers as the perfect example. As noted in the Times, this class of workers is increasingly used in all types of work. These workers work on intermittent, temporary and/or contractual basis, so they are always dependent on the next gig and only as valuable as their last. They also tend to be pretty skilled labor – writers, set builders, designers, even lawyers. However, their inherent skills are not valuable enough to give them power vis-a-vis employers in the modern economy.
The Freelancers Union is not a traditional union in that it does not have the legal abilities or restrictions of a traditional union, like demanding dues and being able to collectively bargain on behalf of its members. It’s a “social-purpose institution” that provides many benefits to its members that have been historically associated with paternal employment practices, such as offering health benefits and providing space for workers to create connections and communities.
On the one hand, it provides a very much needed service; but on the other, it doesn’t actually address the structural issues that make its own existence necessary, such as the lack of secure employment for its members. Unions have often been incorporated into labor economics theory on the basis of their ability to collectively bargain wages, and therefore they can raise wages to an efficiency level, where workers are motivated to work harder since they are receiving more money, or they can correct labor market imperfections that keep wages lower than a competitive level due to employer power. Furthermore, unions encourage job tenure, thereby reducer turnover costs for employers whose would otherwise need to spend time and money training a churning labor force. But without the ability to collectively bargain for wages or tenure, how does the Freelancers Union structurally affect the precariat labor force? In this new economy, with this growing class of workers, what does the freelancers union do besides provide another service to purchase? Does it change the conditions of power? Or is that even an important goal as long as workers are getting health care and psychological support that they need? How could we think about its role in labor economics theory? I don’t have answers to all of these questions, but I welcome brainstorming on it.
The head of the Freelancers Union, Sara Horowitz, says she is just responding to the explicit demands of the freelancers she works for, and she does seem to be making significant progress on this front. When I worked in the labor movement for a number of years, the need for unions was frame to me like this – you can see see unions as a provider of benefits (a glorified HR department) or as a social justice movement. The Freelancers succeed on the first front, but I think they would do more long-term benefit by working on the second and addressing the inequitable structure of the labor market. But I guess beggars can’t be choosers.