Freelancer's Union

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Open Hand
Freelancer's Union

I read an interesting article about a woman in the US who 15 years ago started a Union for the self-employed.  At the time she went to the AFL-CIO for assistance but received none.  The Union now has 150,000 members and provides insurance and political action for its members, among other things.  As the nature of work changes, more and more people, especially younger people, find themselves self-employed, either through choice or just the job situation.  A Freelancer's Union is a fascinating concept and one that could introduce young people to the Left.  Has it ever been tried here?


Do you have a link to the article? 

I think the idea is great. I also think it already exists in a number of forms - professional associations, business asociations  and guilds - some of which do exactly the things you mention and more.

I do know however that  most of the rules governing earnings and standards  are completely different when you are an employee and when you are self employed. Not to mention that it is usually a situation where you have five or 20 or more bosses as opposed to one.


radiorahim radiorahim's picture

There certainly are unionized freelancers in the film/television sector.   Also taxi drivers in Toronto have organized a voluntary association that they hope at some point to turn into a union and they've had the support of the United Steelworkers.

I agree that with the economy changing, new forms of organization are going to have to emerge.   These may not be traditional unions that are certified under various labour relations acts.    But since when do workers have to be certified by the government in order to unite?

Prior to the creation of labour relations legislation in the 1940's unions used to stage "recognition strikes" in order to get the employer to negotiate.  Workers may have to organize this way again.


Sorry to be skeptical, but other than peddling insurance, whom and what do they stand for and against? And what makes them "left" (a term that appears in the OP)?

Put differently, how do they differ from your neighbourhood Order of Engineers or CFIB or the like?


@ Unionist

Yes, I'd like to read the article too. 

As for the politics, I presume we are talking about a general concept, not a statement of principles. Politics and activism would be something to be determined by the membership, I would think. And these sorts of organizations already exist.

But I am also wondering if this is actually a union since for a lot of freelance and self-employed work there is no standard employer-employee relationship. 




[url=]Fill yer boots.[/url] Sounds like a front for the insurance companies to me. (I am deliberately being somewhat provocative here.)


@ Unionist

Ooookay. I didn't know Open Hand was talking about an actual organization called "the Freelancers Union". Plus I was kind of thrown by the reference to "self-employed" and "freelancer".

Thanks for clarifying what  the OP was about.

Funny, I didn't find much of anything about their governance, but there is only one member representative on their board. 

In theory if an organization like this were created and driven by its membership  I think it could be a good thing. By contrast, it looks like this organization was put together primarily by Ms. Horowitz.

Also, although the founder has said she is opposed to public healthcare, apparently they have started making some inroads into the UK.

Some of their political endorsements:


radiorahim radiorahim's picture

Taxi drivers are pretty much "freelancers".   Some own their cabs and others rent them.

Usually taxi fares are set by municipal licensing authorities.    Taxi drivers might also take a shit kicking by the dispatcher and don't necessarily have any kind of grievance procedure...and if the dispatcher cuts you off forcing you to "work the streets", that can have a serious effect on your livelihood.  Cops also hassle cab drivers.

Taxi drivers in some cities in Canada have managed to organize more or less into "traditional" union structures, but others have not been able to.   There was an ill-fated taxi strike in Toronto some years ago that fell apart.

Anyway, Toronto taxi drivers have formed the iTaxi Workers Association with the support of the United Steelworkers.   The aim as I understand it is to eventually turn this organization into a union, but in the meantime they're doing advocacy work and providing services to cab drivers.

People with crappy working conditions need to find ways to organize and build solidarity.   

Prior to the 1930's, the old AFL/TLC craft unions by and large didn't organize in mass production industries.  So, new organizing structures were created with the CIO and CCL to organize in the industrial sector.    With the shift from an industrial to a largely non-union service economy, often with precarious forms of work we're going to have to organize in some new ways.    Some of these new ways of organizing are going to flop while others are going to be successful.   But if we don't try for fear of failure we'll never succeed.


Open Hand

Sorry to take so long to get back, but I've been very busy and don't visit Rabble as often as many others.  And you're not being skeptical, Unionist, you're being cynical.  There's a difference.  The Union does more than peddle insurance (which might actually be useful if you were sick or injured and couldn't work).  They do a lot of political action, develop contracts and fight for standards.  There are unions for some freelancers, such as ACTRA for actors, but this covers a diverse group of people.  And there is no standard employee-employer relationship which is precisely the point.  The nature of work is changing.  I've been self-employed my entire life and although there are disadvantages, I have flexibility, the ability to say no, the ability to charge what my work is worth and actually enjoy what I do.  I do belong to a professional association but it's hardly leftist and extremely self-motivated.  I tried to get the link but could not.  However, it seems there are links to other articles about the Union.


This is where the difference between a co-op and a union should be discused.


This is where the difference between a co-op and a union should be discused.


In terms of taxi drivers, there is an organized taxi drivers union in Hamilton: . Two of the local companies have been organized so far, with the local leadership elections happening this past week:


The largest taxi company in Ottawa (Blue Line) are represented by the CAW - I think they inherited it when RW merged with them.

These are "real" unions, fighting on behalf of their members against the powers that control the industry. They are not mutual benefit societies providing insurance to their members, as far as I know. To my knowledge, the union movement considers that health insurance, pensions, etc. must be provided by society to all its members, and until that goal is achieved, by employers to their employees. The "Freelancers Union" doesn't appear to share that philosophy, which leads me to wonder exactly what kind of "political action" they engage in.

Sean in Ottawa

And btw-- a taxi driver may own a taxi but does not have multiple employers. Hence why they have a union.

When an employer has exclusivity over you, then you can band together with others in the same situation with the same employer as a unit of a union. Taxis are branded by their employer-- you aren't Blue Line in the morning and Crown in the afternoon...


THis thread has been revived at an opportune time, seeing as there is an article about a specific business association on the rabble mainpage:

And Sean, I agree that just because many are doing it wrong does not mean it cannot be done right. 


Sean in Ottawa

I ran a small business at one time and I certainly support the idea that small businesses need to support each other and are often on the wrong end of a power imbalance.

I think association might be the best word since they are not co-ops either but I have to agree they are not unions.

A free-lancer is different from a union member in that a union member has a single primary employee-employer relationship. While a free lancer may be exploited hurt etc. they do have multiple relationships of a different type.

This distinction is not one I just made up either-- even the tax department recognizes the centrality of this establishing that an employer-employee relationship is one of dependency (also considers control of method of work, ownership of tools among other things). These differences all lead to greater dependency for the unionized worker and a different environment.

I totally support small business associations which can be progressive or not and they can help balance power in some cases. But please don't call them unions because you destroy a word with a specific meaning-- defined by being an association of employees who are in an employee-employer relationship for the purpose of bargaining with the employer (by that I don't just mean monetary). It is not a co-op either as those are an association of people who share risk, control and ownership of an enterprise.

What is wrong with the generic word association? Unions and coops are associations so what is common is still respected but the type of associations that they are is defined in the more specific word. Misappropriations of words lead to lost concepts and meanings let's not do that for the word union.

If you want a more specific word then freelancer-association could be used.

The Freelancers union was established as an attempt to establish an organization that could speak about laws and regulations that effect freelance work. It was not set up to bargain with individual employers. Freelance workers are not regular part-time workers.  Freelance is a term used for contract workers.  Thus the attempt is to regulate the working conditions of contract workers.  On the whole contract workers do not have enough attachment to one  employer to be interested in paying dues to an employer-based union.   

Sean in Ottawa

Exactly whihc is why I would prefer they call themselves an association as the word "union" has specific meaning.

This is important for a number of reasons including relations between unions and labour organizations.

epaulo13 epaulo13's picture

..the video is in both jap and eng

Introduction to the Japanese Freeter Unions

“Freedom and Survival — The Freeter Union” is the story of a Japanese Union created in 2004 in Tokyo through and for Freeters. Freeters are mostly young japanese people, who work precariously. In the earlier times it was often a conscious choice, creating an alternative life style apart from the mainstream career in the Japanese Cooperations. But nowaday, especially since the burst of the economic bubble in the 1990ies and through the crisis in 2008, young people often have no other choice and becoming a Freeter starts to be an existential necessity to survive in a society build upon work as the most important value and identity. So the union has the goal of fighting unjust work conditions to regain freedom as well as giving solidarity and emotional support to each other in their everyday lives, partially also through living together, which is quite unusual in Japan. Since 2004, more and more grass root groups have built up in other japanese cities and diverse sub groups have emerged like the Kyabakura Union or the Gas Station Union, which are organised inside the General Freeter Union. Through the Union, the Freeters are able to collectively defend their survival and support and empower themselves through direct actions against unfair working conditions and bad bosses and solidarity with each other.”


Amen, genstrike. Took me many years to realize even a part of that.



It seems to me that there is no question that unions are going to have to get real creative in order to survive and flourish in Canada.  While I don't think we're living in some magical post-industrial society where wealth is created out of pixie dust and empty suits, I also don't think we can deny that the employer-employee relationship isn't as straightforward for a large section of the working class as it was during the long boom.

That said, there have been a lot of gains made by precarious workers through the standard collective bargaining relationship.  For example, look at the gains made by student academic workers and sessionals in the university sector.  These are very precarious workers, pretty much all on short fixed-term contracts, but where they've managed to unionize, they've managed to make some serious gains.  For example, I make about 75% more than someone doing my job without a collective agreement at the other university across town.  Sessional instructors at my university have won some semblance of job security, although it is still pretty weak compared to tenure.

In short, while new ways of organizing are necessary, they also have to be in line with principles of workers rights and class struggle.  Just because something is a new way for the labour movement to do things doesn't necessarily mean it's a good idea.  With a bit of effort, pretty much anything can be gussied up as a new and innovative way to revitalize the labour movement.  For example, look at the SEIU's "corporate unionism" approach, or the CAW-Magna deal.  On the other hand, the IWW is doing some truly innovative organizing in places such as New York, Minneapolis, etc, by treating the state-sanctioned collective bargaining structure (of which, we need to remember the history of why it exists - as a compromise, and a way the state can control unions with a carrot and stick approach) as just one tool of many rather than an end-all and be-all of labour organizing.

The labour movement needs to be creative in its tactics, but firm in its principles.