Municipal Government

Freelancers Changing The Game Through Collective Action

December 8, 2015
By Joe Maniscalco

Freelancers Union Founder Sara Horowitz at City Hall.

Freelancers Union Founder Sara Horowitz at City Hall.

New York, NY –  Freelancers who spend most of their time working alone as independent contractors are poised to achieve historic new protections that could become a model across the country, and they’re doing it through collective action.

The New York City Council is now considering first-of-its-kind legislation designed to help freelancers get paid on time. Each year, gotham’s 1.3 million freelancers are cheated out an average of $6,390, according to proponents of the new "Freelance Isn't Free Act." The stress and anxiety that many experience wondering if they'll be paid before the rent or mortgage bill is due, is commonplace. 

But while the importance of instituting new safeguards that help independent contractors get paid on time cannot be understated, freelancers say that acting collectively to achieve greater gains for all, is benefiting them in other, less tangible ways. 

“Having a union is not just about an actual series of legislation that you can have behind you, it’s a sense of solidarity that people like you are feeling what you are feeling,” freelancer Lily Meyer told LaborPress this week. “It’s helps to lift some of that psychological and emotional burden to know that you’re not the only one going through these things.”

Meyer is a member of the Freelancer’s Union, the 300,000-member advocacy group that has been spearheading the new legislation along with Council Members Brad Lander, Margaret Chin, Laurie Cumbo, Rafael Espinal, Corey Johnson and Stephen Levin. 

The measure also enjoys strong support from organized labor including the American Federation of Teachers and 32BJ SEIU.

Without a union, Meyer said that it is very easy for freelancers like her to “feel bogged down by the magnitude of everything that you’re trying to handle as one person.”

If passed, the  “Freelance Isn’t Freelance Isn’t Free Act” would require companies engaging with freelancers to first execute a defined contract outlining the scope of work and payment schedule, enforceable by the Department of Consumer Affairs. 

“I’m excited about it,” fellow freelancer Lucy Reading-Akkanda said. “It’s going to give me a lot more confidence, and I can stop stressing and worrying about whether or not I’ll get paid, or when a check comes in. It’s just going to be peace of mind.”

One-out-of-three workers today is an independent contractor, and chasing deadbeat clients is an all too common occurrence for all of them — even with a binding contract. 

At one point in her 12-year career in New York City,  Reading-Akkanda spent six months trying to get a company to cough up the $17,500 they owed her for services rendered. 

Meyer was once stiffed out of $10,000. 

Horror stories like that, however,  are indicative of a climate in which independent contractors are viewed as somehow less than “regular workers.”

Freelancers are joining together and forcing change.

Freelancers are joining together and forcing change.

“We’re building up such a large and powerful constituency, that it’s time to put these issues on the agenda,” Freelancers Union Executive Director Sara Horowitz said at a City Hall rally on Monday. “Freelancing in New York started practically in the 1970s. Now, it’s 1.3 million New Yorkers. It’s time as a democracy to start putting this on the front burner, and to say these practices are not going to be okay.”

In addition to helping freelancers get paid, Meyer said that the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act” will, indeed, help “legitimize” the entire freelancing industry.

“It’s a common sense measure that should be in place, and it’s a great point for starting the cultural change of dignifying independent workers and making sure we’re recognized as real workers,” she said. 

Hector Figueroa, head of 32BJ SEIU, said that independent workers, whether they are artists, writers or day laborers, are all vulnerable in similar ways. 

“That’s why we’re coming together in this coalition,” he said. “The union movement was built on solidarity and strength in numbers and that’s how we’ll win independent workers the equal protection they deserve.”

December 8, 2015

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