On May 15, the city of New York adopted the first American law to protect freelance workers against non-payment (Local Law 140, 2016). The “Freelance Is not Free” Act provides that jobs of $800 or more must be paid within 30 days, it protects against retaliation of clients, and it increases sanctions against those who refuse to pay by doubling claims for damages and the compensation of lawyers defending workers.
These regulations are considered a deterrent to avoid getting to court and persuading the clients to reconcile. It is expected that an administration office will send a certified letter within ten days of the expiration of the payment, denouncing the alleged violation of the written agreement between the freelance and the contractor.
This is the result of a long campaign led by the Freelancers Union, the largest freelance union association in the world, with more than 350,000 members registered in the United States. Based in New York, where half the members work, the organization led by labor lawyer Sara Horowitz conducted a sit-in and poster campaign in the Big Apple subway. Mayor Bill De Blasio signed the bill, starting a new season in the history of self-employment.
On the same day that law came into force, the Freelancers Union launched the Freelancers Union App, a smartphone application that connects workers with attorneys specialized in the field. The law, and the app, seek to solve an important problem for the poor work of freelancers. Many of them are unable to pay the costs of litigation. As a result, lawyers prefer not to pursue them. With the “Freelance Isn’t Free Act,” Horowitz hopes to have found a solution to the delay or failure to pay, one of the plagues of self-employment and occasional work without any social and social security protection.
How does your app work?
We organized lawyers who join our union in a freelance guild. The app allows anyone who needs finding available attorneys in real-time, based on the skills they require. When a worker is screwed, he goes online and finds a lawyer immediately. The latter is stimulated to answer because, if he wins the case, he is paid on the basis of the double penalty mechanism. In addition, it is not necessary for the Freelancers union to act by itself, the mechanism can also be initiated by other groups.
Why do you consider this law to be a victory?
It is for those freelancers who lose money, and in any case a potential buyer who refuses to pay, in addition will have to pay the lawyer’s fees and civil damages. The law provides for the freelancer to receive a written contract, describing the work to be done, the rate and method of payment and the date by which it is to be carried out. For us, it is a victory because it has allowed us to find a tool against exploitation. Every year, on average, a freelancer loses $6,390 in missed payments in the United States.
What are the categories of workers concerned?
As freelancers, we mean workers who open an individual company, independent contractors, term contractors, day-laborers, workers with a second job, and self-employed. For years, we have been discussing this form of work that represents a third of the workforce in the United States. These people pay taxes, but they almost never have access to traditional social security designed for wage-earners and have to deal with very unstable income. For this reason, the New York law, where a large number of freelancers are concentrated, is very important.
In the United States, mutualism is considered a tool to address the problems of this workforce. How do you see it?
We are literally trying to teach our world a mutual strategy. Our economies are mainly based on the free market and public state intervention. Around the world, social emergencies are emerging that are not met by any of these factors. Mutualism is a response to a missing element in the economy. A mutual help strategy that emerges when groups get together and recognize that they have a need and try to satisfy it. Freelancers are the predominant group in the new job market and can make demands that the government and the market cannot meet. The collective intellectual conscience is not yet ripe, but our twenty-year experience says we need to get organized, laws, and organizations such as SMart and Freelancers Union.
What is the story of this new mutualism in the United States?
It started in the seventies in publishing and the media industries. The protagonist then was the National Writers Union. The most important issue for freelancers was already health insurance. We have applied it to freelancers in a more universal manner since the 1990s, when we were able to develop it by ourselves. Since 2004 until now, we apply it in almost all fields, thanks to the support of the national and non-profit systems. This extension is also due to the fact that the nature of work is changing in every sector.
The biggest ones are digital platforms, arts, journalism, and content authors. We have also created an insurance company. With Obama’s health reform, it has become a thing of the government, but unfortunately the company is out of the market. When Obama lost the election, and a republican majority was elected in Congress, we lost support. The crazy thing is that there was no intention of hurting us, it was not an ideological problem, also because the industry has developed enough.
What are the differences and commonalities between you and the traditional trade unions?
Like unions, we link people around common needs and values and use the principles of solidarity and mutual assistance to solve common problems. Unlike them, we do not participate in collective bargaining. It is a model that does not work for a widespread workforce that works independently. That’s why we have created another type of negotiation.
What will happen with Trump?
There is a lot of concern. We are only at the beginning, but in the next ten years, the trends will become more evident. The government will not be able to provide policies for social safety nets. They will do everything for the market, with its highs and crashes, and we will need more and more mutual help and solidarity to stay together.
What is mutualism today for the left?
It’s a way to get a social role back. If it cannot achieve it, the left will continue to decline.
Will it create a new society or just to meet better the needs of the market?
I came to the conclusion that, first of all, it is necessary to ensure social and economic security for all. This is the political question that mutualism can begin to answer. It helps you to create a database, an income, and fight theft. This allows you to have confidence in the future and plan a long-term life. The next natural step is building a political idea of what should be the best for the community. I realize that people think that the first step in this strategy is neoliberal. Instead, you have to take another step to understand that mutualism is a way of working together. The new mutualist groups derive their power from the strength of an extended community, the feeling of solidarity and the economic connections that make a group stronger than an individual.
FREELANCERS UNION: MAKE A COALITION, ENROLL THOSE NOT AFFILIATED
Sara Horowitz, founder of the first “federation of non-affiliated,” the Freelancers Union (website: www.freelancersunion.org ), comes from a family tradition in the union movement. His grandfather was the vice president of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (Ilgwu), one of the strongest US progressive trade unions in the first half of last century, which represented Italian and Jewish immigrants in New York. In 1995, Horowitz founded “Working Today” in New York, to represent the needs of the independent workforce. In 2001, it was the turn of the Freelancers Union. In 2008, the Freelancers Insurance Company was founded, and 25,000 people joined in. Obama’s health reform has partly covered the needs of the audience that the company was addressing. Freelancers Union provides access to dental care, social security support and life insurance. In 2014, the “National Benefits Platform” was launched, allowing freelance Americans to access these low-cost benefits. Since 2013, Sara Horowitz joined the Board of the Federal Reserve (Fed) in New York, the US central bank, to protect the interest of the people of New York, in the capacity of “class C” director, pursuant to the Federal Reserve Act of 1913.
The coalition of trade union and mutual organizations, to which the Freelancers Union refers, also adheres to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, a network of sixty organizations with 20,000 members that fights for and protects the rights of female workers and domestic workers. Il Manifesto wrote about it on June 17th, hosting a contribution from AI Jen Poo, the director of one of the state-of-the-art organizations in the self-organization of independent workers in the United States. Also the New Economy Coalition is part of this coalition, a network of 200 cooperatives and social enterprises, based in 29 US states and five Canadian provinces, which aims to “make capital a tool for the people.” In Italy, the Freelancers Union is associated with Acta.