Membership

Freelancers' Union: How it Topped 200,000 Members

By / Mar 25, 2013

One part labor union, one part association, the contract workers’ group recently reached the milestone in part by gaining a deep understanding of its members’ needs. And it’s still growing.

It’s a group for the “gig economy,” and it just hit a major milestone.

Recently, the Freelancers Union, a labor organization designed for freelancers and contract workers, signed up its 200,000th member.

The sort-of union has garnered significant attention in New York City, where it’s headquartered, and elsewhere because of its unique approach to an issue of growing importance for freelance workers: benefits—specifically, health benefits.

A veteran freelancer who helps a new freelancer find her first gig is creating a new economy built on mutual support.

More details on the group’s success:

How it got started: According to The New York Times, the executive director of the Freelancers’ Union, Sara Horowitz, learned about the issues facing freelancers almost 20 years ago after she took a job at a law firm and discovered she had been classified as an independent contractor, which meant that she had no benefits. After starting the jokingly named “Transient Workers Union” with some coworkers, she took her union roots (her father was a labor lawyer and her grandfather a labor executive) to the next level when she launched the Freelancers Union. The group is now one of the fastest-growing labor organizations in the country, with nearly half of its members living in New York state. The organization adopted its current name in 2003; it was launched under the banner of a similar organization in 1995.

Is it a union or an association? While Horowitz, who has experience as a labor organizer, calls the group a union, others say it’s closer to an association, as it doesn’t collect member dues and, by law, cannot engage in collective bargaining for its members. (The National Labor Relations Act gives such independent contractors, who are not considered employees, limited bargaining rights.)

What’s driving growth? The organization has turned a weak point for freelancers—the lack of employer-provided health insurance—into a strength. Its Freelancers Insurance Company provides access to individual health care programs ranging from $225 to $603 per month and recently received $340 million in low-interest loans from the Obama administration to expand health programs for freelancers in three states. The group has also enjoyed a series of political wins in recent years, including the defeat of a proposed business tax on independent workers making less than $100,000 per year in New York City.

Leading like a freelancer: In an interview with The Next Women, Horowitz described the social entrepreneur approach she takes to leading her organization—an approach not dissimilar to the one employed by her organization’s members, who often rely on friendships and partnerships to generate leads for new work. “That’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned from freelancers—that we’re all choosing how we contribute every day,” she told the publication. “A veteran freelancer who helps a new freelancer find her first gig is creating a new economy built on mutual support.”

Horowitz’s efforts have drawn attention because they are entrepreneurial and could help change the traditional freelance model for success in a modern economy.

“She saw that labor unions basically haven’t innovated for several generations, and in the meantime the world has changed and there were tremendous needs that weren’t being met,” Bill Drayton of the nonprofit foundation Ashoka told the Times.

With a constantly changing work environment, how can you help ensure your benefits and offerings reach your members where they’re most needed? Let us know your take in the comments.

Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is the social media journalist for Associations Now and a former newspaper guy. More »

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