The Next Big Idea For Workers Will Come From The Old School Labor Movement

Don’t look to Silicon Valley and Washington, D.C., for new ideas about how to make workers’ lives better. Social unionism, where workers join together to create revenue and community, is making a comeback.

The Next Big Idea For Workers Will Come From The Old School Labor Movement
[Image: Abstract via Shutterstock]

The new economy is drastically changing today’s workforce–and vice versa. Freelancers everywhere are looking for an independent way to work and a healthier way to live. They value time, well-being, and community as much as a paycheck, and they want their consumption to match their ideals.


But where are the institutions that support this new way of living and working?

One thing’s for sure: They’re not coming out of Washington, D.C. The government doesn’t even track independent workers, let alone support the millions of Americans who are embracing the gig economy.

They’re not coming out of Silicon Valley, either. The tech innovators there have built some remarkable platforms, but they’re still making platforms built on individualized connections (one-to-one or one-to-corporation).

We need to build a networked economic ecosystem that helps people connect as a stronger collective–group-to-group. That’s the key to long-term change.

That’s why freelancers are turning to each other to build the institutions they need to thrive. They’re forming marketing collectives. They’re exploring worker co-ops. They’re group purchasing everything from insurance to office supplies.

Social purpose institutions built by and for freelancers are popping up across the country to help independent workers live a 360 life–where work and life and passion are all equally important. Like the new workforce itself, many of these institutions are new–but the idea goes back a century to something called “social unionism.”


In the beginning of the 20th century, organizers in the labor movement saw that workers didn’t just need better working conditions–they needed better social conditions, too. That’s why many of those unions (like the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union or the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America) focused on much more than just life on the factory floor. They served as vehicles to build the community as a whole–in the factory, in the halls of government, and in their workers’ neighborhoods. That’s why they created worker-built, for-profit institutions that served the bottom line and the social good.

For instance, in 1914, the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union established New York City’s first union-owned Union Health Center. Almost a decade later, the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America created the union-owned and operated Amalgamated Bank. That bank went on to finance the Amalgamated Housing Cooperative in 1927, where not only did members live, but they also housed arts programs, summer camps, and citizenship classes.

All three of these institutions–and many other examples of social unionism–still exist today. That staying power is worth examining, and emulating. In fact, that’s exactly what I did when I started Freelancers Union and Freelancers Insurance Company.

The concept of social unionism–the idea that worker-backed institutions can generate revenue and community value–is making a serious comeback. Independent workers are building the economy of the future, where fair work and a full life are combined.

Freelancers Union has built an interactive map where you can find–and help identify–innovative social purpose institutions catering to the changing workforce, from community health centers to child-care services to food coops.

The labor movement has always adapted to new realities to help workers accomplish together what they can’t achieve alone. When the industrial revolution moved workers from the farm to factories, labor unions provided the guide for fair work in an era that badly needed it. But labor is transitioning to a new era once again, and the labor movement is adapting again.


Millions of independent workers are leading a new Quiet Revolution that’s built on the tried and true platform of social unionism. Instead of lamenting the passing of the old way of work, they’re banding together to create a better one, because the institutions best equipped to serve the independent workforce are the ones created by the independent workforce.

Freelancers know what it’s like to chart your own path. That’s how millions of freelancers are approaching today’s new, uncertain economy: by taking the reins. Independent workers aren’t focused on the past. They’re learning from it–and building the future.

About the author

Sara Horowitz is the founder and Executive Director of Freelancers Union, a national labor group that represents freelancers including selling health insurance and other products.