Freelancing isn’t free: precarity and self-organization in the “gig economy”

Agitprop from the Freelancer’s Union (USA)

by DAPHNE LAWLESS. From the new issue of FIGHTBACK magazine, “Trade Unions for the 21st Century”. To order a print copy for $NZ10 + postage, or to subscribe in electronic or print format, see here.

Under capitalism, we’re all supposed to dream of being “the boss” – as opposed to an exploited worker obeying the bosses’ orders. Obviously we can’t all be bosses – who would we order around and exploit? – but the next best thing, in modern “neoliberal” capitalism, is to be your own boss. Hence the appeal of those scam ads for “EARN BIG MONEY AT HOME”, which turns out to be selling cosmetics or bogus diet aids to your friends.

Capitalism is defined by the division between those who own capital – the tools, machines and resources – and those who have to work for a living for the owners of capital. “Self-employed” people are generally seen as being part of a “middle-class” between these two layers. In essence, they own just enough capital to make it possible to employ and exploit the labour of only one worker – themselves. The willingness of a self-employed person to “exploit their own labour” is one reason why small contractors are often more productive than waged or salaried workers – at a proportionate cost to their own health and personal lives.

The idea of self-employed people (often known as “freelancers”, especially when they are writers or other creative workers) as middle-class is an old-fashioned one. Increasingly, neoliberalism has made the idea of a full-time job, especially one “for life”, a thing of the past. Buzzwords like “downsizing” and “labour market flexibility” just boil down to more power for bosses to hire and fire, to drive down wages and conditions. In this situation, there is a whole new class of freelancers who can just be seen as casualised workers who own their own tools.

Freedom is a two-edged sword

A freelancer is only paid for the job. There is no guarantee of future employment, no sick leave and no holiday pay. In these situations, freelancing can even be seen as a form of “disguised unemployment”. Often, having several “clients” rather than a single employer paying you offers no escape from exploitation and mismanagement; the website clientsfromhell.com provides a regular supply of hilarious, depressing and true stories of freelancers suffering at the hands of bigoted, fraudulent, miserly, or simply ignorant employers. Freelance journalist Jacob Silverman complains:

Every generation has its comeuppance. Ours lies in the vast field of disappointment that you land in after you run the gauntlet of privatized education, unpaid internships, and other markers of the prestige economy. There you find that writing ability or general intelligence mean nothing if you don’t have the right connections, or the ability to flatter those in authority, or a father who once held the same job. Those who have mastered these forms of soft power succeed while the rest learn the meaning of “precariat” and debate joining the Democratic Socialists of America.[1]

However, there is another side of the story. Neoliberal ideology talks about the “freedom” of the freelance, be-your-own-boss lifestyle. And it really is freedom, of a sort. A freelance worker sets their own hours of work; they can often work from home, which gives opportunities to parents of small families.

Crucially, a freelance worker also has control over the conditions of their work – when your client/boss is only paying you for what you produce, you can produce it in any way you see fit, without a manager hovering over you. And a freelancer can also reject any job or any client which they consider repugnant, for whatever reason – if they can afford to. (The present author once rejected an opportunity to index the biography of a senior New Zealand politician – not for political reasons, but because the pay they were offering for it was negligible!)

But this is the same freedom that a stray cat has – the freedom to starve. The situation is even more dire in the United States, where the only affordable medical care for many workers is employer-provided health insurance. Being excluded from the “full-time” job market might mean a death sentence if you have needs which can’t be covered out of your own resources.

The author of this article became a freelancer when her employer went out of business; she simply purchased her work computer and kept doing the same job, often for the same international clients. I can testify to both the aspects of the equation above. The precarity and anxiety of sometimes not knowing where your next work (and pay) is coming from contrasts with other times when there is far too much work coming on tight deadlines and you have to choose between giving up a job and giving up your health. But all this is balanced by being able to work how I want, from where I want, producing work of which I can feel proud (that is, if I’m paid adequately to do so.) I can even just ditch work for the day to look after my preschool child, when necessary and deadlines permitting.

The freelance job-advertising website Upwork reports that

nearly half (46%) of Generation Z [those born after 1997] workers are freelancers, a number that is only projected to grow in the next five years …not only are more Gen Zers freelancing, but 73% are doing so by choice rather than necessity, while only 66% of Baby Boomers and 64% of Millennials can say the same, according to the report.[2]

Similarly the British Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed reports that in the UK:

the number of female freelancers has grown by 55% since 2008. New mothers choosing to take up freelance work rather than return to full-time office employment post-baby has shot up by 79%. Comparatively, the number of men freelancing has grown by 36% in the same time frame.[3]

This new form of employment relationship is thus dominated by younger people and by women, two of the most vulnerable sections of the working class. In these situations, the kneejerk reaction of the traditional workers’ movement that freelancing is just a way for employers to drive wages down, and should be discouraged or even abolished, looks as out as touch as those who say the same things about migrant workers. Many of us choose to freelance, and prefer the conditions of work to clocking in every day under a manager’s supervision. What we don’t like is the insecurity attached to it.

Ideology and organization

The point now should be not whether freelance work should exist, but how the position of freelance workers can be improved. And in the Marxist tradition, the answer to that has always been “the self-organization of the workers themselves”. But the current labour union movement has enough trouble organizing workers on small, geographically dispersed sites. How can we possibly organize workers who work from home, online, with a different “boss” every week or maybe even multiple bosses on the same day?

Another major problem with organizing freelancers is the strong influence of ruling-class ideas that freelancers should see themselves as “entrepreneurs” rather than workers – even when living in precarity at the whim of millionaire clients. According to Tom Cassauwers writing for Equal Times website:

Freelancers often see themselves as free-wheeling entrepreneurs, with little need for collective power or forming alliances with employees. On the other hand, some unions have a history of mistrusting freelancers, seeing them as a way for employers to undermine working conditions.

Freelancer Sarah Grey adds that corporate lobbyists invest a lot in trying to get freelancers to see law changes and union organization which would actually benefit them as a threat to their “freedom”:

Aligning freelancers ideologically with the goals of the petit-bourgeoisie (which some Marxists also do…), even though most have far more in common with the working class, erects yet another barrier to prevent them from organizing and demanding rights as workers.[4]

This tactic was used to gruesome effect by Peter Jackson and Warner Brothers in the dispute around the filming of the Hobbit films in New Zealand in 2010. When Actors’ Equity demanded a union contract, a slick PR operation by the employers whipped up fear that this would lead to the major studios abandoning film-making in New Zealand altogether. This led to film workers actually demonstrating in favour of law changes which deprived them of rights (one memorable sign said “EXPLOIT ME, PETER!”) and union spokesperson Robyn Malcolm faced vicious harassment.[5]

Another crucial question is how to distinguish between actual freelance workers and “fake freelancers” – workers who are actually working in traditional jobs but have been pushed into declaring themselves to be freelance or “independent contractors” so that their employers can deprive them of rights. The most familiar example of this in Aotearoa is workers at Chorus who maintain our telecommunications infrastructure.[6] Traditional unions or NGOs have to be careful to defend the rights of actual freelancers while also defending the rights of full-time workers to have all their appropriate rights and conditions of labour.[7]

What kind of organization?

Freelancer organization is currently most advanced in the United States, precisely because of the issue of health insurance mentioned above. The Freelancers’ Union (https://www.freelancersunion.org/), founded in 2001 by former labour lawyer and union organizer Sara Horowitz, concentrates mostly on advocacy and getting good deals on health insurance from its members. Their biggest victory in advocacy came with New York City enacting a “Freelance Isn’t Free” law, which requires that all freelancers be paid within 30 days alongside other legal protections.[8]

However, the Freelancers’ Union is not actually a “union” in the way we would understand it, in that it does not engage in collective bargaining on behalf of its members. It is in fact more similar a non-profit organization which provides services and advocacy in return for membership fees; a “top-down” organization, rather than an expression of workers’ power. It works for freelancers “within the system” rather than trying to change that system.[9]

One major issue in the United States is that the labour laws left over from the Franklin Roosevelt “New Deal” era specifically exclude many categories of workers (originally to make the law acceptable to racist Southern agriculture bosses). Thus, many freelancers and other “gig economy” workers couldn’t join a union if they wanted to. This is where NGO advocacy organizations play an important role, like the Freelancers’ Union, or like the organizations who have lobbied for improved conditions for Uber and Lyft drivers – even organizing successful strikes in Los Angeles.[10]

That said, there are successful models of union organization among freelance industries – the most famous being unions in the entertainment industry (which existed before the US labour laws mentioned above). The US television industry was brought to a near-halt by the Writers’ Guild of America strike of 2007-8,[11] and the same union is currently taking legal action against talent agencies who they say are exploiting their monopoly position against writers.[12]

The entertainment industry is one of the economic pillars of the US economy and – in that country, at least, can’t be easily outsourced to more desperate overseas workers (the threat of which proved so effective in the defeat of the actors’ unions in New Zealand during the Hobbit dispute). So it’s perhaps not surprising that “old-style” union power still has a foothold there. But what models are available for those of us in less “trendy” freelance jobs – for example, writing or editing jobs, where there is continuous downward pressure on pay, deadlines, and the quality of work deemed acceptable?

One recent answer comes from a very venerable source – the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or “Wobblies”) have recently started organizing among freelance journalists. An article from a member-organizer tells a story which is very familiar to freelancers in other industries:

Many new to the industry are expected to work “for exposure” (that is, for free or unliveable rates); writers covering sensitive topics are forced to shoulder the burden of legal liability and harassment from angry subjects and readers; health insurance is either a clusterfuck to obtain or simply out of reach. All of these problems follow the same dynamic: because freelancers are individually outgunned by the publications that they rely on for their livelihoods, they are forced to work under extremely exploitative conditions…

[S]taffers’ unions are only useful insofar as there are staffers; after being sold, [the website] Mic was relaunched without staffers — relying almost entirely on freelancers instead. If freelancers are not to be made de facto scabs, then they must be organized. And because staffers’ unions, bound by red tape and budgets, are not organizing freelancers, freelancers must organize themselves.[13]

The article goes on to discuss the question raised above, how to “map the workplace” (create ties between freelancers who might never meet each other in person) through one-on-one contacts through existing personal and professional networks. Crucially, the Wobbly organizers have worked on an international basis – just as feasible as local and national organizing when the community is globalised through the Internet – and has made no distinctions between print journalists, website journalists or bloggers. They have already announced a small victory: a Twitter campaign forcing the website Vox to rescind their rule prohibiting freelance writers from publicly discussing how much Vox pays them.

Other, more “traditional” labour unions have also had victories. In the US, the National Writers Union won a major battle for back-pay for freelance journalists in 2018.[14] The Dutch trade union FNV, the German union ver.di and the British trade union Community have all made serious efforts to organize freelancers – the latter, similarly to the American NWU, aims to concentrate mainly on problems with late payments.[15]

Andrew Pakes of the British union Prospect toured New Zealand last year, giving talks on the question of organizing freelance workers. In a website article, he explains:

Our approach is based on the premise of empowering freelancers (“what can freelancers do together for themselves?”) and our organizing strategy, communications and services are designed around supporting that.

We help freelance workers to organize themselves and treat the union as a source of experience, advice and administrative assistance – one that helps to create a sense of identity and pools knowledge to tackle shared concerns. This combines the best of union organizing with new ways of working and extending our reach into growing gig areas, in the creative industries, communication and digital sectors. This approach is not without its challenges and adaptability is key.[16]

The question is clearly not whether organizing freelance workers is possible, because it is being done. The question of whether traditional unionism, the “Wobbly shop” or an NGO advocacy-and-service model is the most effective is one which can only be established by experience. But time is long since due for freelance workers and their allies in Aotearoa/New Zealand to start making experiments.

Sarah Grey gives an excellent final word:

freelancers can no longer be written off as aligning ideologically with the petit-bourgeoisie. Freelancers increasingly come from working-class backgrounds, work for low wages, and share the primary interests — and the precarity — of the wider working class. We are not a precari-bourgeoisie — we are the future of class struggle.

[1] https://newrepublic.com/article/153744/gig-economy

[2] https://www.techrepublic.com/article/growth-of-the-gig-economy-46-of-gen-z-workers-are-freelancers/

[3] https://www.ceotodaymagazine.com/2018/07/the-rise-of-the-freelancer/

[4] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/freelance-independent-contractor-union-precariat/

[5] See our predecessor organization’s article at https://fightback.org.nz/2010/10/25/workers-party-statement-on-the-hobbit-dispute/, complete with comments from anti-union members of the entertainment industry

[6] https://www.stuff.co.nz/business/110473768/action-widens-against-chorus-subcontractors-accused-of-migrant-exploitation

[7] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/07/for-freelancers-getting-stiffed-is-part-of-the-job-some-in-new-york-city-want-to-fix-it/

[9] A good account of the positive and negatives of the Freelancers’ Union is provided here: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/10/freelancers-union/

[10] https://www.teenvogue.com/story/freelancers-want-to-join-unions-but-labor-laws-wont-let-them

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2007%E2%80%9308_Writers_Guild_of_America_strike

[12] https://www.businessinsider.com/tv-writers-union-says-agents-are-violating-antitrust-law-2019-8/

[13] https://organizing.work/2019/08/a-year-of-organizing-freelance-journalists/

[14] https://www.equaltimes.org/unions-should-push-for-the-rights

[15] https://community-tu.org/who-we-help/freelancers-and-self-employed/

[16] http://unions21.org.uk/news/lessons-for-a-collective-voice-in-a-freelance-world

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