Union Made

Meet the woman who thinks there’s a better way to organize for the way we work today.

When I spot her from across the street, Sara Horowitz is ducking into a coffee shop surrounded by brownstones in the quiet Brooklyn neighborhood of Park Slope. My first impression is that she looks small. Not short. Not thin. Just small.

She turns out to be funny that way: with straight brown hair, a barely perceptible touch of makeup, and an unprepossessing air, she seems at first a bit like a social worker, or even a librarian.

But Horowitz is, emphatically, not small. Founder and executive director of the Freelancers Union, Horowitz has created, in 15 years, an institution with nearly 150,000 members and multiple arms — including the union, its for-profit insurance company, and a political action committee (PAC) — as well as $100 million in gross revenues. She has received a MacArthur “genius” grant for her creation of the union, has been listed as one of Esquire magazine’s “Best and Brightest,” and this year was one of Crain’s “25 People to Watch.”

Most impressively of all, she recognized the significance of a major shift in American employment — toward selfemployment — years before almost anyone else. In this she was, really, a visionary, seeing just how much would change — for good and for bad — as the old “ideal worker” model is thrown out in favor of much more fluid and flexible definitions of work. And now that independent workers comprise one of the fastest growing employment sectors in the United States, her 15-year-old organization is prepared to offer them practical benefits of membership, like group health insurance, as well as the opportunity to mobilize as a class of underserved and under-accounted-for workers. What she is working with is what we all now recognize as the new economy, an economy in which workers claim flexibility, mobility and work-life balance as their rights; an economy in which being employed, in the old sense of the word, is often an impossibility or an afterthought; and an economy in which all the risk is absorbed by the worker herself.

The Freelancers Union members, whose numbers have doubled in the last year, include consultants and independent workers from many fields. The largest categories include TV and film producers, advertising workers, graphic designers, computer and IT professionals. In other words, it is largely a creative-class union, though there are also a hefty number of health care workers, financial service consultants, and even some taxi drivers. You might think it would be hard to get such a diverse group to unify behind any agenda at all. But the biases in employment law and taxation against the self employed are so severe and systemic that Horowitz feels she has all the agenda she needs. “Well, you don’t get mobilized around H.R.41091, but you do get mobilized over the realization that you’re getting fucked, and that if you’re not coming together with other people, you’re not going to do well.”

When we sit down to talk in the Park Slope coffee shop, Horowitz puts me on notice that she wants to talk shop. There have been profiles of her before, she says, but “it’s usually about me and my grandfather and blah blah blah, but not ‘let’s open up the hood and see what makes this engine run’.” And so … under the hood we go, and it soon becomes clear that that’s where Horowitz likes to be.

The key insight behind Horowitz’s work is that independent workers are ill-served by the legal and tax systems that have been in place for decades, and as a result they are largely unprotected against a host of ills. You know those monthly Department of Labor employment statistics? Although independent workers now make up about a third of all American workers, they are not counted in those numbers. And you know all those benefits extended under the recent stimulus package to help workers? Not a cent was directed to a program for that same one-third of workers who work for themselves. These workers are simply on no one’s radar screen.

Horowitz lays out very simply what these new workers need: a new safety net, one that breaks free from the “nostalgia” for employer-based systems. They need to be able to buy insurance collectively, since they can’t participate in employer based plans; they need some kind financial backup for the lean years, the way employer-based unemployment insurance exists for company-based workers; they need to be covered by labor laws, including anti-discrimination and disability law, the way employees are; they need to be able to turn to the state departments of labor for recourse the way employees can when companies fail to pay. “And the worst part of it,” she says, sounding a little mad, “is that this group is really driving the economic growth of the country, so it’s really a crime to not be paying attention to it.”

For Horowitz, establishing union benefits and confronting the status quo through advocacy go hand in hand. “Business sets up shop for business. It’s not to say that every business person doesn’t care about workers, but that’s not their job…. So you had children working, you had 18-hour days, and it wasn’t til you had a social movement” — she’s talking about the creation of craft-workers unions and the passage of workers’ rights legislation during the Progressive Era in the United States from the 1880s to the 1920s — that it ended. Similarly, she says, today employers need a more flexible workforce, and they are taking advantage of the absence of law to achieve their goals. “But it’s really because we haven’t had any social movement that says to elected officials and to government that we are going to vote you out of office — and we will.”

Horowitz’s reading of history also suggested to her that “all great collectives have had an insurance company.” And so one of the major steps her union has taken is the creation, in 2008, of the Freelancers Insurance Company, a for-profit entity that is wholly owned by the union and that supports its functioning. (There are no union dues.) For that to happen, she had to convince New York State to allow freelancers to band together to buy group health insurance; when New York did that, in 2008, it became the first state to do so.

While Horowitz is focused on the big picture, it is just this kind of day-to-day improvement in the lives of her members, one pragmatic step at a time, that she takes on. A major victory was the 2009 revision of New York’s Unincorporated Business Tax, which had been in place since 1966 and essentially forced the selfemployed to pay a punitive double tax. The union launched a campaign, working with New York state legislators and New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg to overturn the UBT. It was a big win, and helped to garner the attention of New York’s congressional delegation. Giving an average of $3,400 annually back to New York’s freelancers, it also won the union some significant grassroots support.

Among the union’s other efforts are:

Ensuring that independent workers are counted in employment and unemployment rates and metrics that track freelancers’ contribution to the economy. As union materials put it, “one study in New York City found that the selfemployed drove two-thirds of job growth since 1975, but no such study exists at the national level.”

Ensuring protection against “unpaid wages.” As things stand, if a company’s employee is not paid, she has the right to go to a state’s Department of Labor and have that DOL investigate, levy fines, and even impose jail time on repeat offenders.

But when an independent worker goes unpaid, she can ask for payment until she’s blue in the face, or pay to go to small claims court, which has a maximum claim amount of $5,000. Horowitz has used her PAC to get a bill introduced to give independent workers the same access to DOL justice as employees have.

Expanding worker protections to include independent contractors. Such an effort would extend to independent worker measures like workers’ compensation and anti-discrimination laws, from which they are currently excluded.

Creating a system of unemployment protection parallel to traditional unemployment insurance, possibly built around tax-advantaged savings accounts.

Offering a better kind of insurance, one that would keep costs low by guiding people away from expensive and unnecessary types of care, while always keeping the door open for exceptions. (“I am obsessed with colonoscopies,” Horowitz says, and she is. She can tell you how 77 percent of the procedures done in New York City are done with “super-duper anesthesia” that drives the cost from $400 to $1,400; how the drug is used only 15 percent of the time in the western part of the United States and almost never in Europe and Asia; and how, unless you have a history of trauma, extreme anxiety, or colon-related illness, the drug is unnecessary.)

All these initiatives are nascent efforts, with New York state as the primary pilot locale, but the idea is to take them bigger, and farther — and to offer many more things that union members need and that unions offered a century ago. Things like union health care centers; a union bank; and union housing (not in Manhattan, Horowitz says, a little speculatively, but the “outer boroughs are very interesting and real estate is a lot cheaper in some of the other cities where we have members.”)

Taking the ripples even further, Horowitz connects her work to the way the next generation of workers is challenging the status quo, “asking the really profound questions of how you want to live your life. We want to enable people to really have the power to make decisions on how they want to lead their lives. And so they may want a gig or two that brings in real money. But there are real things that people are going to give up and that is going to be that idea of having so much disposable cash. People are really going to be trading in time. That’s the part that really ties in with all these interesting other movements that are coming together about how we consume and … what we eat and what we do to the earth.”

In her own life, she and her husband, a labor lawyer, literally “trade in time,” dividing up the work-week days into morning and evening “shifts,” during which the on-duty parent is responsible for domestic duties and for the couple’s 10-year old daughter. All the negotiating is not easy, but she believes that the new, more independent workforce will have more control about how and when they want to spend time working and with family. “When you’re piecing out your career, when you’re really managing it and you have more control,” she says, “it does make having children part of the equation.”

After an hour and a half under the hood, I somewhat apologetically press Horowitz again for at least the short version of what she called the “grandfather blah blah blah” story. And so she tries.

Horowitz had something of a labor conscious childhood. Her father’s father, whom she didn’t know, had been a vice president of the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union and part of the inner circle of legendary union leader David Dubinsky. Her father was a Bund socialist labor lawyer, her mother a unionized teacher who had been raised “just regular immigrant Eastern European Orthodox” and who in her 20s left the Orthodox community of her birth and moved to a bohemian block in Brooklyn Heights. The family had little money and lived in a one-bedroom, rent-stabilized apartment. “My parents had the dining room and my sister and I had the bedroom — but we had a really great view of the harbor. It wasn’t pleasant, it would have been really nice to have a bath and a half. But … it gave me a lot of insights.” One of the first ad campaigns the Freelancers Union did, which ran in New York City subways, was headlined “Welcome to Middle-Class Poverty.” “And I knew it,” says Horowitz, “because that’s how we were raised.”

Passed down through the generations, union work was Horowitz’s second nature. “I don’t know how far back you want to go,” she told me, “but I called a strike when I was in 8th grade.” It was International Women’s Day, 1976. During the silent meeting that opened the day at her Quaker school, she stood up and announced, “Today is International Women’s Day and all the girls should go on strike.” She went to French class, and when she got back, the girls had walked out. It led to a day of conversations about “what are all the issues for girls, and what were the things that were going on at the school that we didn’t like. But what really [registered for] me about it is that you could really do that. … It was just a thing I knew I was going to be involved in.”

Horowitz went on to study labor history at Cornell’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, followed by law school and three years as a public defender. But it was in her next job that the plight of the independent worker became clear. She was hired as an independent contractor with a union-side labor firm. The job was clearly a staff job — she worked full time, had business cards, and was supposed to represent herself as a member of the firm — but didn’t pay benefits. Punning on NYC’s powerful Transit Workers Union, she and a few others in that boat “used to joke that we were forming the transient workers union.” Tag line: “The union makes us not so weak.”

Spurred also by a case she was working on, in 1995 Horowitz took a one year “intellectual sabbatical” at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to figure out “how is this baby going to work.” It was a deeply rich year of thinking and planning and fundraising, but one class that really crystallized the issues for her was a history of American democracy, which in part traced the waves of individualism and pluralism in the country. “I realized we had to think about what would be an evolution of that, [an institution] that has to enable people to be individuals but also to come together in a new way.”

It’s not always easy to situate Horowitz and the Freelancer’s Union in the panoply of pro-worker organizations. Though she was given support from the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations and the social entrepreneur group Echoing Green, “the traditional lefties didn’t get it,” she recalls, “and because I wasn’t doing it in a protest in-your-face way, I got abandoned by the traditional lefty foundations.”

The union movement wasn’t much interested either. While ramping up to start the union in 1995, Horowitz convinced the AFL-CIO to fly her down to Washington with a proposal to create a division for independent workers within the king of all unions. They weren’t interested. “I like to make a joke that they said ‘Well, you’re too young and too female’. They didn’t say that exactly. You know, it was an irrelevance. I was this young woman who had no members and no money and no board, and an idea. And it was just not going to happen.” More importantly, because her organization doesn’t engage in the wage and benefits negotiations that have traditionally been the work of unions, she can run into skepticism about its true union blood.

But for all her hearkening back to history and the calls for collective power, Horowitz herself isn’t eager to end up lumped with the hard left. “I often feel like I’m not a member of the current left but a member of the coming left,” she says — a left that talks about the collective good without dependence on government or on employer/union-based systems for support. One suspects she feels that the educated but struggling members of her union are not welcomed under the left’s umbrella, and she is quick to chide the left for being “so unempathetic.” That attitude, she says, is “‘If you’re not poor then I don’t have to think about you.’ I really don’t like that. It’s like Pol Pot or the Khmer Rouge. I don’t believe that, and I think it’s really hard-hearted.”

The Jewish piece of Horowitz’s perspective is implicit, but strong. A fourtime Hebrew school dropout, she is today an active Reform Jew. But as with her union, she spreads her Jewish umbrella as wide as it will go. “I actually believe that there are all pathways to God and I just happen to be a Jew. … I think that when you’re blessed in the sense of believing in something it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t have to be religion, it’s that higher thing that is higher than yourself. That, I think, that is religion to me.”

She goes on: “I am going to misquote this — is it Maimonides? It’s some really big guy up there — that says you actually have an obligation to keep at it, you don’t have an obligation to succeed,” she continues. “And that’s so what I believe in. … We live in this society where [people say] ‘I’m never going to achieve anything so why try’, and that’s so nihilistic; it’s really bullshit. I’d rather try and fail, and try and fail, and try and fail, and then when I die, well, I tried a lot, as it turned out.”

The Cost of Being a Woman
by Sarah Blustain

The gender gap in salaries has made headlines in recent months as progressives pushed for passage of the Paycheck Fairness Act in Congress, which was meant to address data showing that women make 77 cents for every dollar made by men. The bill failed in November.

According to a new survey, women working in the Jewish community needed that law. NYU professor Steven M. Cohen recently carried out a comprehensive survey of Jewish professionals, asking about everything from diversity to education to level of Jewish identification. The report (at www.bjpa.org) gives a good snapshot of who is working in the Jewish community these days.

In the fine print one finds this stunning discovery: Based on surveys of 2,435 Jewish professionals in the United States and Canada, in organizations large and small, working as administrators, fundraisers, Jewish educators and more, women make up two-thirds of Jewish communal professionals, and yet they are paid, on average $.75 on the dollar for their work.

In a field where the median income is about $78,000, Cohen writes, “among full-time Jewish communal professionals, women significantly trail men in compensation, with an overall gap of $28,000.” Part of the gender gap in pay, he notes, is due to differences in position and number of hours worked. (Not explored in the survey are the reasons behind that disparity, though there may be a clue in the fact that Cohen found little to no gender difference in salary at the entry level.)

Nonetheless, when Cohen controlled for these differences — “holding constant age, years in the field, level of responsibility, hours worked, and degrees earned” — women’s salaries still lagged by about $20,000. That’s equivalent to what Cohen labels as “the net cost of being a woman in Jewish communal life.” Here’s hoping the Jewish community won’t wait for a Congressional prod to do the right thing.

To Flex or Not to Flex
by Sarah Blustain

Remember back before the downturn, when progressive efforts to make life easier for working mothers (and fathers) were in style? Flex time, paternity leave, job shares … so much hope in the air.

But for those still holding old-fashioned jobs with benefits, the downturn is turning up the pressure to devote ever more time to the office — leaving the home fires untended. Experts say that there is a significant stigma on flexible work options, even in companies that offer it. Lauren Leader Chivee, of the Center for Work-Life Policy, finds that because of job anxiety during the downturn, employees feel more and more that “you have to be in the office with your jacket on the back of your chair to show that you’re available.” Joan Williams, director of the Center for WorkLife Law at the University of California, notes that “in workplaces where work-family balance policies were already ‘highly stigmatized,’ workers have become more reluctant to use them.”

However, Williams adds, “In places where they were accepted, they have stayed accepted.” Those small signs of signs of progress may be the silver lining. Shifra Bronznick runs Advancing Women Professionals (AWP), a non-profit group dedicated to getting women promoted into positions of leadership in Jewish organizations. She acknowledges that while this economy makes it harder for her to convince organizations to embrace flexible work options, some do recognize the cost when organizations lose talent because of inflexible work-family policies. “What’s really interesting from my point of view [is that] we’ve been able to make serious headway in this environment. A conversation has been started that they can’t go back on.” To date, 40 Jewish non-profits have joined AWP’s Better Work, Better Life campaign, and have improved their policies on parental leave and flexibility.

Outside the Jewish world, some institutions have taken the downturn as an opportunity to overhaul their systems. Chivee cites companies that created new work-at-home policies in an effort to radically reduce their real estate costs — companies that have “achieved millions of dollars in real estate savings and won major points among their employees, particular their women employees.” But, she says, there’s a sad catch: “As long as programs look like they’re focused on helping women, they just don’t work.”

Are Teachers Unions Losing Their Clout?
by Paul Abowd

It didn’t look right, but it was classic Randi Weingarten. The president of the 1.5 million-strong American Federation of Teachers strode the red carpet with union-bashing filmmaker Davis Guggenheim at October’s D.C. opening of “Waiting for Superman,” the high-profile public education documentary that casts the AFT president in the villain’s role. Weingarten has not shied from the thorny debates over school reform, and as a result has become one of the most visible labor leaders in the country.

For a generation (or more) of Jewish women, teaching was the default career choice, promising job security, good hours, intellectual challenges and — importantly — work that served the social good. So what happens to teachers in public schools is of particular interest to Jews, whose support for public education — coexisting with the push for Hebrew day schools within the Jewish community — is widespread.

Weingarten took the reins at the AFT in 2007, altering the pale, male, and sometimes stale order of things atop America’s labor movement. She came out publicly weeks before taking the job, becoming the first lesbian to lead any American union. For most of her tenure, Weingarten has faced an unprecedented school privatization effort led from Washington. The debate around these plans — which amounts to a direct attack on the teacher unions that were major supporters of Obama’s campaign — carries no shortage of irony for the AFT. Obama’s Race to the Top fund dangles $4 billion in stimulus money before cash-strapped states. Rewards go to states that open their districts to more non-union charter schools, tie teacher evaluations to student test scores, and extract concessions on job security and pay from teachers unions.

Weingarten has been tirelessly open to Obama’s corporate reform agenda — an effort that has become fashionable with backing from anti-union players like the Gates Foundation and Teach for America. Her emphasis on collaboration with all parties at the education reform table comes at a time when resistance seems more urgent.

Weingarten has been criticized by some local teacher unions for cheering on “bold,” “progressive” reforms that translate to weaker job security for teachers, and for a commitment to divisive merit pay schemes that further entrench standardized test prep in the classroom.

Still, an abiding fear of obliteration has taken root within the AFT, and threatens a paralysis that could lead to, well, the union’s obliteration. The hammer keeps falling, and a supposed friendly face is swinging it. Weingarten’s consistent plea for a seat at the table with the education reform vanguard has already been granted (she sits on the Democratic National Committee, after all). Weingarten’s call for collaboration feels nice, but no longer sufficient to protect the rights of teachers and students. And it betrays a lack of faith in union members’ ability to organize, right as the union — and the idea of public education — face mortal danger.