Sara Horowitz, founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union, has been earning kudos for over a decade, winning a MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grant" in 1999 and being named one of Forbes' Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs of 2011. Horowitz has labor in her blood—her father was a labor lawyer, and she herself has represented labor interests as an attorney in private practice and as a union organizer with the National Health and Human Service Employees Union. Today she is focused on advocating for a new, and increasingly important, group of workers—the roughly 42 million Americans who make a living as freelancers. By offering discounted group benefits, including medical, dental, and disability insurance, and advocating for freelancer-friendly government policy at the state and federal levels, the Freelancers Union has grown to nearly 200,000 members since Horowitz founded its predecessor organization, Working Today, in 1995. Today the union runs its own insurance company and education programs, and in November it will launch one of its most audacious efforts to date: a bricks-and-mortar medical center in downtown Brooklyn. Horowitz recently spoke with Fast Company about building a self-sustaining organization, getting beyond the politics of right and left, and carrying labor’s legacy into the future.
Bringing together a workforce with no common industry tie means appealing to common needs. Health insurance is a big one. And if low-cost insurance is the only reason someone joins the Freelancers Union, Horowitz is fine with that. "I was raised in a union household, but I don’t expect people just graduating from college to care about unionism and know labor history," she says. "One thing we’ve done really well is being honest and open about where people are—you’re just as worthy if you want health insurance as if you want something larger. The labor movement was not organized by people who were told just a big vision, nor just promised the next salary increase. It was actually both and everything in between."
The labor unions that emerged after the New Deal championed better wages, benefits, and working conditions through the process of collective bargaining—negotiating with individual employers on behalf of members. For today’s independent workforce, that model no longer makes sense, but, says Horowitz, advocacy on the government level does. To that end, the Freelancers Union has formed political action committees (PACs) at the state and federal level to lobby for freelancers’ interests.
"We understand the taxation system for freelancers, and it makes no sense," says Horowitz. "The whole benefits structure is set up so that freelancers who are working middle class are not able to get any subsidies from health-care reform." Change will only come, Horowitz believes, when freelancers come together to say what they need, and take their case to leaders in government. "The big picture of this is recognizing who is really working," she says. "We have to rid ourselves of the illusion of a 40-hour workweek with benefits for all."
Already, Horowitz can point to some victories on the policy front, successfully advocating to eliminate New York City's Unincorporated Business Tax, which imposed an unfair double tax on freelancers' business and personal incomes, and coming "within a hair’s breadth" of passing a law allowing freelancers to file wage claims against deadbeat employers. Moving forward, Horowitz aims to mobilize freelancers into a true social movement, through initiatives that will allow independent workers "to articulate what we need as a country, to make sure we have a say in how this society evolves. There’s a power in markets and power in politics. We have to show that these issues affect people across the board. It’s the same as the early stages of the civil rights movement. People want something better than what they’ve had since the breakdown of the New Deal."
"I started the Freelancers Union with an eye toward figuring out what the next form of unionism was going to be," says Horowitz. The organization draws on all kinds of collective models—not just the big labor unions that emerged in the wake of the New Deal. "There were other movements of labor before that—like social unionism, union housing. I see us not as just neighbors with the labor movement, but with things like co-ops and ESOPs [employee stock ownership plans], too. And other models of social entrepreneurship are really helpful."
While the Freelancers Union is formally a nonprofit, Horowitz is adamant about running it as a business. The biggest part of that business is providing insurance. Launched in 2009, the Freelancers Insurance Company now covers more than 23,000 New Yorkers at rates up to 40% less than other insurers, and is financially self-sustaining. With $340 million in federal funding, in 2014 the union will launch consumer-driven health insurance cooperatives in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon, dramatically expanding member coverage.
Although some social enterprises have accepted private funding from VCs, Horowitz has refused to take on private investors, who might compromise the organization’s decision-making. "What we really want is economically aligned institutions whose goals and the goals of its members are the same," she says. "We need business models that work to deliver things that are excellent. The left has to get over the idea that we have to be a traditional nonprofit that’s boring and two-dimensional intellectually. The business types have to get over the idea that everyone can get rich, be happy, and do great. There are choices to be made."
In November, the union will open its new medical center in New York, which will provide free primary care services for members, plus access to doctors and health coaches by phone, email, and text. "We need to fill the medical home and have people start to use it," says Horowitz. "The number of people who have gone to look at the medical home in bulk through social media is shocking. It’s spread so virally. We’re spreading the word in a way people never imagined 20 years ago."
"I look at the labor movement of the last 150 years and see some amazing leaders," says Horowitz. "The Reuther brothers, John L. Lewis, Samuel Gompers, Sidney Hillman—these men towered over the business leaders of their day. I’m sad that more people don’t know about that." Still, Horowitz is confident that the Freelancers Union is on the leading edge of a labor renaissance. "We’re the most mature of this generation, but we won’t be alone. As people come and look at the same issues, they’ll start figuring out their own approaches. Nobody has the blueprint yet. It’s important for people to come together in different ways. If we don’t find ways to bring people together, they will react with pain."
[Images: Library of Congress on Flickr]