As so often happens when we set out to do big things, when I set out to create what would ultimately become the Freelancers Union, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. I was studying at the Kennedy School of Government, and I knew that I wanted to organize independent workers, but I was working through different models as I went along. As you can imagine, not having an ironclad plan meant that it was hard to secure funding.
It also meant that foundations interested in getting involved wanted to have a say in how I moved forward. It soon became clear that my vision didn’t quite fit in with what the advocacy community considered to be acceptable.
I wanted to build this new organization the way that unions are built—that is, with a built-in revenue stream that supports their goals and helps to power their growth. In the case of the traditional union, that comes from membership dues. It seemed pretty clear, though, that while the freelancers I knew were excited about the idea of organizing to secure more sane work lives for themselves, they wouldn’t think it was feasible to pay dues—their income flow is too unpredictable. So that was out. And I knew I didn’t want to take corporate funding, because that would mean even more dictates.
The fledgling Freelancers Union would need to stand on its own two feet financially—and further, I thought, it would need to be funded by the workers themselves, so that they would be the ones telling us what to do and setting their own agenda.
So we put the question to freelancers: What is your number-one concern? What would you want an organization to do for you right now? And overwhelmingly, freelancers responded that their biggest concern was finding affordable, quality health insurance. We had our first task: We would offer health insurance and start our own health insurance company. That way, we could provide members with the benefit they told us they needed most and, in so doing, create a revenue stream to ensure the union could be self-sustaining.
But making that decision meant we had to part ways with some would-be foundation partners in the early goings, just when we needed to secure startup funds to get the insurance business up and running. I was told in no uncertain terms that true advocates don’t run businesses. It was a binary approach: You could either work for justice or work with markets. And it was very clear what the "correct" choice was.
I remember going to a conference where I felt like the unpopular kid at school—people had heard about my idea and they didn’t want to sit next to me at lunch. All because they didn’t understand how providing health insurance could fit within the advocacy mission. But when the meeting concluded, a director at a major foundation approached me one-on-one and told me my idea was a good one. I’ve never forgotten how much that solitary vote of confidence meant.
Two decades later, the Freelancers Union is 300,000 members strong and the premier policymaker and organizer for the nation’s 53 million freelancers. We now help independent workers get affordable health insurance, liability insurance, disability insurance, and term life insurance. We got to this point largely because of the incredible team that came together over the years, drawn by the same ideals of a new kind of mutualism in America.
I learned some foundational lessons along the way. First, pick your partners wisely—particularly where money is concerned. Even in an environment where there is immense pressure to focus on funding above all else, it’s better to follow your own vision instead of following the money.
Second, don’t back down when you know you have a good idea. Be patient; the rest of the world will come along when you’ve done the work to make your idea happen.
But there’s a business lesson here, too: Advocacy can use markets to make things happen. Yes, there is such a thing as pure social good—and in my experience, when we pair that drive to heal the world with a common-sense plan to pay our own bills, we end up with hybrid businesses that are both more economically sustainable and more flexible in the kinds of work they can take on.
I’m a third-generation labor activist, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that the labor movement is dead and gone. But looking around me, I see the new generation of community-builders emerging, learning on their own to trust in their convictions and to think creatively about how a mission can move forward. There are success stories popping up everywhere. And that’s great news for workers.