Organizing for Gig Workers

Editors’ Note: Excerpted from The New York Times, January 9, 2020, by David Gelles.

As noted in last week’s  post regarding Eugene Scalia, the new Secretary of Labor, the decline of membership in union organizations accompanied by a rising gig economy is creating a host of novel challenges.

Sara Horowitz is a student of the labor movement; she takes the long view.

Her grandfather was involved in one of the most prominent garment workers’ unions during its heyday. Her father was a labor lawyer. And her grandmother lived in union housing in New York City. Growing up, she saw firsthand how unions could help workers. 

After working as an organizer, she went on to found the Freelancers Union, an organization that advocates on behalf of independent workers. 

With organized labor having lost ground in recent decades and the rise of the gig economy, Ms. Horowitz still believes workers of any classification are more powerful when they organize. Today, she is focused on improving benefits for independent contractors. After starting the Freelancers Insurance Company in 2008, she went on to  found Trupo, an organization that bundles benefit packages for independent or gig workers.

Workers’ organizations are as old as the Bible, Horowitz maintains, and in many ways, we’re working in similar ways aa lot of workers before the Civil War because they tended to be solo entrepreneurs and craft workers.  It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that labor organizations emerged.

Ms. Horowitz sees freelancers today as being quite transient. “You can’t always locate them with a particular employer. So we had to really figure out how people could come together who are in so many different places. While technology is transforming work, it’s also enabling people to put organizations together in a way they couldn’t before. There’s no way an entity like the Freelancers Union could have existed without the internet.”

The story of the labor movement is the story of low-wage and higher-wage workers uniting together. I think that inadvertently, the progressive left has made the mistake of internalizing Reagan and thinking that the labor movement is only made up of low-wage workers.

“One of the first things we have to unwind,” according to Ms. Horowitz, “is this idea that the gig economy is just about low-wage workers, because it’s just broader. Freelancers range from very low-paid workers to very skilled and highly paid workers. They’re all workers.”

“It seems like these days inequality is making it harder for the labor movement to succeed. The story of the labor movement is the story of low-wage and higher-wage workers uniting together. I think that inadvertently, the progressive left has made the mistake of internalizing Reagan and thinking that the labor movement is only made up of low-wage workers.”

Ms. Horowitz continued, “We have to come together as low-wage workers and higher-skilled workers to talk about the things we need, from training to benefits, to changing the tax code, to really giving power to a new set of labor institutions, like Roosevelt did.”

“In the 1920s, everyone said labor was dead, and, boy, in the 1930s did they learn that was not true. Things are so cyclical. Just because they don’t happen in your lifetime doesn’t mean that they’re not going to happen.”

She spoke of her faith, Judaism:

“You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”

 



Categories: Issues, labor and unions, Local, National

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