Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Union of Enlightened Self-interest?

There is an undeniable appeal to being your own boss or working from home Monday to Friday. The freelancer lifestyle nevertheless loses its appeal once debts and responsibilities pile up and with the recession, except for the independently wealthy, that is the case. Workers can no longer rely on a ”safety net”

Job turnover in the United States is astoundingly high: 45 percent of the American workforce will switch jobs within a year. The General Accounting Office estimates that 30 percent of the U.S. workforce is “contingent”—meaning freelance; temporary; and, most significantly, taxed differently from employees and not entitled to such benefits as health insurance, retirement, paid vacation, even weekends. Between savings in employee health care, paid vacation, benefits, child care, and sick days, it is estimated that freelance workers cost 30 percent less than full-time staff. Labor laws forbid companies from classifying fulltime workers as contractors, but the rules lack teeth. A bill to amend the Fair Labor Standards Act to require employers to keep records of non-employees who work, and to provide a penalty for persons who misclassify employees as non-employees died in committee.

As the economy shifted away from manufacturing jobs and toward knowledge- and tech-based ones, companies have clearly away from taking responsibility for long-term careers. These certainly include crude cost-cutting considerations, but they also reflect the deeper economic changes. With skills and demand metamorphosing so rapidly in so many domains, it is often more effective to look for those with needed skills on the open market rather than developing them internally. Once companies begin to do that, they tend to break the whole pattern of expectations and commitments which grounded the classic system.

Guy Standing, a professor of economic security at the University of Bath describes the “precariat,” as those whom employment is typically short-lived, uncertain, and delivered without a benefits package and the desperation of the perpetual part-timer brings about a destabilisation featuring the villainisation of migrants (for “taking away jobs”), the adoption of extreme political views, apathy, disenfranchisement, and widespread income inequality.

“Flexibility” was the buzzword, crystallised in the 1980s, and had many dimensions: wage flexibility meant speeding up adjustments to changes in demand, particularly downward employment flexibility meant easy and costless ability of firms to change employment levels, implying a reduction in employment security and protection; job flexibility meant being able to move opposition or cost; skill flexibility meant being able to adjust workers’ skills easily. In short, companies saw the benefits of using freelancers and began to do so in order to remain competitive. As the Freelancers Union puts it, “Welcome to Middle-Class Poverty.

The Freelancers’ Union has more than 80,000 members in New York and 150,000 members in other states. It has existed for seven years. It is now the seventh largest union in New York State. It is now the seventh largest union in New York State. It uses slogans such as ”Organize and Mobilize" and "There’s an I in Union.” The Freelancers Union says its mission is to unite contractors, part-timers, and other non-permanent employees. Sara Horowitz, its founder, comes from a labor background. Her father was a labor lawyer, her grandfather was a vice president of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, and she herself has worked for unions her whole adult life. Yet legally the Freelancers' Union is NOT a union. A traditional union that’s governed by the National Labor Relations Act is classified as a (C)5, which allows it to engage in collective bargaining. The FU, on the other hand, is a 501(C)4 organization, which means it is essentially a not-for-profit advocacy group. Ultimately it plays the role of insurance provider.It started its own insurance company, the Freelancers Insurance Company. This organization, which is a fully owned for-profit subsidiary of the FU, is classified as a Certified B corporation, which means it must prove itself to be environmentally and socially responsible. The company was started with $17 million in grants and loans from the Ford Foundation, NYC Health, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Prudential. Anyone can join the union for free. But to be eligible for health insurance you have to have earned $10,000 in the past six months or prove that you’ve worked twenty days in the past eight weeks. Not all professions are eligible: the list includes predominantly white-collar or “knowledge” workers, such as media, publishing, design, and tech as well as domestic and health care workers.

How do you hold your employers accountable when you cannot strike? Workers who are worried about paying the rent can’t realistically ask for more money or complain about lousy working conditions, because the stakes are too high. And taking their disputes to court is expensive and time-consuming. Unless they have supremely rare talents, their employer can easily find a replacement who will accept a less lucrative contract. Rights have only been won when workers made themselves seen, heard, and and standing united. It is conceivable that freelancers’ organizations could call for boycotts. But the only type of common-cause that can remedy the situation is one that mandates all workers in the profession to stop providing services until the employer adopts better practices - to withdraw their labor - to strike.

Horowitz doesn’t think that lack of collective bargaining or even the ability to strike affects the FU’s constituents or clout. The Freelancers Union shies away from ideological or political labels. Horowitz says “Today’s Left is not the Left we’re going to see in ten years. [Right now] new ideas aren’t allowed to flourish accordingly. The Left is very constrained intellectually. We’re progressive, but not part of the Left,” she adds, referring to partisan political membership. Horowitz speaks about the FU as an example of the “new mutualism,” which the FU defines as “the belief that political and economic life flourishes in social networks, and that social change requires individuals to shift their thinking from ‘I’ to ‘we.’

The Freelancers Union’s members are for the most part people for whom things will probably improve if the economy picks up. Freelance jobs as defined by the FU’s membership requirements are not being eliminated or becoming obsolete: they’re being cut back and modified. These workers’ skills—graphic design, health services, computer technology will continue to be valued. Currently, the Freelancers Union provides a “safety net” for this small group of people, and it does so as successfully as it can. “I always thought of the FU as more entrepreneurial…than political” says Horowitz. However, the organization engages in political canvassing, raises money for politicians who advocate for freelancers’ rights and lobbies at the state government level for legislative change. The union has formed federal and state political action committees and supported NYC Mayor Bloomberg’s run for a third term in 2009. Horowitz personally campaigned for him and is committed to market-based capitalism. The FU rhetoricis, in turn, a far cry from the language of organized labor’s past. In fact, the FU is unafraid, and even proud, of its members’ individualism. “Maybe joining a group to buy health insurance is communal. Maybe it’s rational self-interest. Either way, it’s cheaper.” reads a recruiyingposter

The Freelancers Union is further constrained by an unquestioning belief that while acknowledging some of the difficulties it wholeheartedly endorses, even promotes, the freelancer lifestyle. This reasoning reinforces the “flexonomy” that employers wish to impose on others.

Adapted from an article by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian here

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