Sara Horowitz founded the Freelancers Union, a co-operatively run non-profit in the United States in 2003. It now has 237,000 freelancers in membership. It provides them with health plans, medical insurance, pensions advice and other important tangible needs. And, more importantly, it provides a solidarity network.
The Union began as a response to the changing labour market – from, as she puts it, the shift from “big work to gigs”.
Sara identified the “need to create structures that provide security for the new workers. Very quickly when we started talking about what was needed, health insurance was huge,” she says. “But we wanted to make clear that this was an evolution of the union, bringing people together for the things they need. It was built on the models of friendly societies, mutual aid societies and guilds.”
Freelancers in membership, she says, are motivated more by social change than practical benefits. “Only 10% of our members use our benefits.” The rest are members for the solidarity network it provides.
She attributes this to a certain freelancer mind-set. “Freelancers don’t work in nine-to-five jobs. They think about their priorities, their time, they ask ‘what do I love to do?’
“When you think about it, it’s no accident that freelancers are at the forefront of thinking about health, about time, about the big questions. It’s our job at the Freelancers Union to connect up freelancers thinking about these issues.”
For Sara, freelancers are part of a wider new economy that is emerging. She describes a “quiet revolution” taking place, in which people are embracing “new mutualism”.
She means the growing number of organisations with a “commitment to communities, that improve people’s lives in the long term. They can become models and competitors to the profit-seeking sector.”
They may be freelancer networks, co-operatives, ethical businesses, collectives or even local businesses. “We’re not looking to be purist,” explains Sara of the new mutualism. “It needs to be broad.”
Co-operation – but not as we know it
Case study: How do co-operatively-run freelancer networks and open businesses compare on the seven co-operative principles?
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