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Freelancers Union

Dave » 16 years 46 weeks ago

Freelancers Union is an organization that aims to represent America’s growing independent workforce. Focusing first on New York, the organization primarily offers group-rate health insurance (as it has done for years now) and is expanding with other kinds of coverage across the US. They also advocate for political change, focusing on issues of concern to independent workers — issues like double taxation (when you’re both an employer and an employee), limited access to health insurance, retirement savings options, employment laws, and legal redress for non-paying clients. They provide important information and facts about New York’s independent workforce, publishing frequent reports and studies. They’ve started a number of educational events and networking opportunities catered to freelancers. They operate a basic, free community web site that lets members post and search for freelance gigs, share information amongst each other, and generally interact.

I first discovered Freelancers Union via their advertising campaign on the New York City subway system. “Member profiles, post gigs, find jobs”, the wall ads announced. “It’s like one, giant octopus”, one of the ads proclaimed, and I took to the message. I immediately recognized it as something in the same vein as what I’m doing here. Woven is all about supporting the geographically distributed workforce, while Freelancers Union seemed to be addressing the “independent” workforce locally in New York.

Within days of creating my profile on the site, I was contacted by a member about some work on a “large social networking site”, I declined the specific work, but I offered a quick suggestion about Drupal as the platform of choice for these things. I was brought in to their award-winning web agency in SoHo to discuss their strategy and ended up working with them part-time for over a month, in a capacity like that I haven’t chose to work in since moving to NY two plus years ago. I thought the gig would go longer, but the project was “shifting” sooner than expected and the client was gearing up (or down) to set up an internal team. (They ended up not going w/ Drupal, by the way.)

While on that gig, I attended a round-table discussion with the founders of Freelancers Union and a handful of other members, over lunch at the Andy Warhol Foundation (there were real Warhols on the walls). The organization wanted to hear from their members what types of concerns they had and what they felt the organization should be addressing. I shared my thoughts on better tools for community interaction and collaboration, including resource directories for things like lawyers and accountants that understand the needs of freelancers, as well as campaigns to better spread awareness that the independent workforce is very real, very viable, and a credible part of the future of work. I applaud Freelancers Union for engaging in a meaningful dialogue with their community, and it looks as if they’re serious about incorporating the feedback into the organization’s strategy.

Freelancers Union is already entrenched in offering insurance and in organizing political advocacy in the state, while their global strategy has yet to be articulated and their community (as yet to be collaboration) tools have yet to demonstrate a strong direction. I gently offered my counsel with this latter aspect in response to their own request at the meeting, but haven’t heard back. I’d certainly be interested in keeping an open channel in general. My specific thoughts in regards to what they’re doing have to do with bettering the abilities for members to interact, come together, and collaborate — for their independent endeavors and towards Freelancers Union’s goals as an organization. It all comes down to the technology — big member photos, easy and accessible communication options (chat, forums, wikis), group workspaces (with issue and time tracking, document storage), and more — and keeping it simple, fast, friendly, and cleanly and strategically integrated. “Easy as Google” seems to get my point across most times.

Here are some interesting factoids about independent workers in New York, taken from a recent Freelancers Union report (PDF):

  • 92% are registered voters; 90% have voted in a recent election.
  • 1/3rd have saved less than $1K towards retirement; 1/2 less than $10K.
  • 39% lacked health coverage at some point in the past year. I’d imagine that number’s higher where respondents don’t know about FU’s coverage.
  • 37% reported periods of unemployment. Here, too, seems like it’d be higher in certain circles — freelancers often go from gig to gig.

A recent report (PDF) by the city of New York cites self-employment as that which is fueling the city’s job growth boom.

I’ve always maintained that the long term vision with Woven involves addressing the very real issues facing the geographically distributed workforce beyond just the technology itself, and a first step is culling information like the above on a global basis. While Freelancers Union is primarily addressing independent workers in New York, and their tact seems to be in pooling people together to demand change, the issues are largely the same. Of course they are harder to home in on and address when dealing with international differences and other issues implicit when spanning multiple geographies, cultures and jurisdictions. It’s certainly a long term vision, and we have our work cut out for us, but I believe in our strategy and where we’re slowly beginning. Interested in being a part?

Freelancers Union is definitely an organization to watch, and I’ll be sharing more as I’m able.