Christopher D. Cook: In 2008, Alanna Krause hit a wall. Just 25 years old and already rising through the corporate ranks as a global technical support team leader at Bloomberg in London, Krause began to feel that her work was “meaningless.”
“No matter how well I did my job or how much I improved things, ultimately what I was doing was moving numbers from one column to another column,” Krause said.
A year later, amid a rousing protest against the G-20 Summit near her office, Krause had a deeper epiphany. “I was climbing this ladder, but I looked ahead of myself and I saw that no matter how far up it I climbed, there was nowhere up there I wanted to go,” Krause recalled in a speech at the New Frontiers 2016 conference in New Zealand.
Embarking on a journey many might dream of, Krause quit her job and traveled through Spain, India, and the U.S., looking for meaning and fulfillment. She eventually landed in Wellington, New Zealand, where she joined the decentralized, entrepreneurial collective Enspiral.
Functioning as a supportive umbrella for freelancers and social enterprises, Enspiral offers its members creative independence and a strong sense of community. Members pool and invest a portion of the profits from their work into new social-impact projects.
Enspiral is “a bubble within which we can make our own economy, where we get to set the rules,” Krause says. “We don’t have to wait for the world out there to change for us to start living in the transition economy, right now.”
While Enspiral may operate in a bit of a bubble because its core members are highly paid independent software programmers, it is part of a growing movement forging new paths for freelancers in an increasingly unstable work world.
An emerging collectivist movement
Like an extended smashing of atoms, the 9-to-5 job market has shattered and splintered over the past 25 years in ways that have both liberated and trapped millions of workers.
Uber drivers, ditch-digging day laborers, adjunct professors, freelance software designers, temp attorneys, domestic workers, and often woefully underpaid “task rabbits” hired online at a moment’s notice, wouldn’t appear to have much in common. Their pay and working conditions vary wildly, and some push paper while others handle steering wheels, mops, diapers, or sledge hammers — but what unites them is a gig economy marked by flexibility, instability, innovation, and legal and financial uncertainty.
As the gig economy proliferates, growing numbers are breaking away and creating their own work communities, based on a mix of autonomy and interdependence. Combating precarious economics and social isolation, freelancers are using new open-source technology and old-fashioned shoe leather organizing to create new ways to work and to work together.
Enspiral, for instance, uses a mix of physical meeting spaces, open-source technology, and digital organizing to help workers build creative and economic independence as well as community. The collective is just one piece of a burgeoning global freelancers’ movement that is helping independent workers to reposition power and ownership in a platform-driven age.
Scanning the freelancing terrain, Steve King, a partner at Emergent Research, says he finds loose-knit “guild-like groups informally banding together to help each other” who are sharing their networks and resources for mutual gain. From coworking spaces to platform-based support groups, these freelancers’ networks have cropped up organically, King says.
The constellation of freelancer organizing ranges from Enspiral-type freelancer collectives to newfangled unions for gig workers such as Uber drivers. Whether fighting for living wages and basic rights, or collaborating on projects with fellow freelancers, these initiatives share the larger aim of creating meaning, dignity, and power in their work together.
The gig economy’s roots
As more goods and services are sold via the web and mobile apps on an as-needed (or wanted) basis, the freelance and gig workforce has exploded. In the U.S. alone, 55 million people — about 35 percent of the total labor force — worked on a freelance basis in 2016, according to a newly released study by the New York City-based Freelancers Union and digital freelancing platform Upwork. The ranks of freelancers jumped by 700,000 in just one year, from 2014-2015. Roughly two-thirds of freelancers, 63 percent, are working independently by choice rather than sheer necessity, the study found.
Just in time for the elections, the study also concluded that 67 percent of freelancers “are more likely to vote for candidates who say they support them having ‘a strong voice in deciding issues about their work’ or ‘having access to health and retirement benefits regardless of their employment status.’”
“Independent professionals are an increasingly integral part of the U.S. workforce,” Upwork CEO Stephane Kasriel says. “We should be addressing their interests or America will fall behind countries that are better equipping their evolving workforces.”
Freelancers “are a diverse but vital part of the U.S. economy, contributing over $1 trillion in freelance earnings to the economy,” Horowitz says. “Now’s the time for business leaders, policy makers and candidates alike to stand up and take notice of their potential influence and to start developing ways to help them overcome the most pressing issues impacting their lives.”
The complex and evolving landscape of freelancing includes compelling success stories but also deep disparities, just as in the larger labor market. “Because contingent work can be unstable or afford fewer worker protections, it tends to lead to lower earnings, fewer benefits, and a greater reliance on public assistance than standard work,” a 2015 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office stated.
Despite vast ranges in worker empowerment and income, this is a precarious group, the GAO found. Contingent workers are more likely than full-time employees to be people of color, women, low-income, and with less education and class mobility.
Meanwhile, across the pond, the ranks of Britain’s self-employed workers have risen by 732,000 since 2008, while permanent conventional jobs rose by 339,000, according to an in-depth report published by Co-operatives UK and partners titled “Not Alone.” But while this may seem a sign of spirited entrepreneurialism, the report found that low-income workers in the self-employed sector are now the norm.
This upheaval has its roots in a deeper power struggle over the terms and conditions of labor. “There is a long-term shift of power from workers to employers since the 1970s,” says Juliet Schor, professor of sociology at Boston University.
Schor says plunging rates of unionization, increased corporate power, anti-labor policies since the Reagan era in the U.S., and a move to producing goods on an as-needed basis globally, have led to a “weakening of workers” — a key reason behind today’s precarious labor. This steady diminishing of workers’ rights has placed even more power in the hands of corporations.
Amid a more volatile global market, “companies don’t want to be locked into providing income security for their workers,” says Gerald Friedman, professor of economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
This volatility is one of the driving factors behind the freelancers’ collectives cropping up today. But it’s not a new phenomenon. “In the nineteenth century, working class self-help organisations included craftsmen’s guilds, co-operatives, friendly societies and the first unions,” the authors of the “Not Alone” report noted.
In today’s “age of economic insecurity and rapid changes in technology there is now the opportunity to reinvent democratic self-help for the twenty-first century in order to widen participation on a fair basis for all in work,” the report added.
Freelancers get collective
Today’s freelancer collectives are driven not just by fancy technology and well-remunerated innovation — they’re sometimes driven by a passion for social change at community and societal levels.
In Spain’s Catalonia region, the Cooperativa Integral Catalana (CIC) offers everything from common meeting places and community dialogues on economic alternatives, to income tax benefits and community pantries where people share local food.
The cooperative strives to be an autonomous community and is building its own kind of political-cultural-economic commons. Once every two weeks, the cooperative hosts open assemblies to discuss ongoing and new projects, ranging from reports and documentaries on capitalism, to developing independent currencies to conduct trade outside of the larger economic system.
The CIC has set its sights on a wider transformation of society — a vision that spans personal autonomy, community sovereignty, and creative exploration of new ways of living and working.
“It is one of our tasks, empowering us to explore other forms of reciprocity, use of social currencies, fair coins, direct barter and exchange, un-monetized economies, and gift economies,” CIC member Raquel Benedicto says.
Other collectives may not be as explicitly political, yet are forging new collaborative communities that are slowly but surely democratizing the economics of creativity.
In Berlin, the Agora Collective provides artists and other creative workers with a shared space and collaborative formats for developing their work. Agora, which was founded as a coworking space in 2011, provides studios for artists and dancers, collaborative artist workshop programs, residencies, and programs that support international artist collaborations.
“Our coworking floors accommodate professionals of all fields, and allow a diverse and active community to flourish in our building,” the group describes on its website.
With strategic partnerships across Europe, and financial assistance from the Nordic Culture Fund and the Swiss Foundation among others, Agora has been able to think big — providing not only coworking spaces and collaborations, but ongoing dialogues and projects that invite new ways of thinking about work and how it should be valued. Agora’s Circular Economy project, for instance, is an extended conversation about ways to re-organize production and consumption to eliminate waste.
Similarly, Netherlands-based Seats2Meet (S2M) blends shared workspaces and social networking, tapping an immense desire among freelancers to expand opportunities and social connections. Since its launch with just 10 people in 2005, S2M has grown steadily, connecting tens of thousands of independent workers to thousands of free, shared workspaces around the world — and to each other. As Shareable reported in 2013, S2M links freelancers up with diverse kinds of physical spaces, including ice cream shops, libraries, theatres, and even hospitals.
S2M president Ronald van den Hoff says what began as an experiment in sharing physical spaces evolved into a knowledge exchange, peer support network, and community for oft-isolated indie workers. “The rise of the numbers of people using the ‘free workplaces and catering’ was staggering,” Van den Hoff says. “Within months we had hundreds of independent workers daily visiting us, filling up the public lounge, and logistically we were completely overwhelmed.”
Freelancers, “started to co-work almost automatically and share their knowledge and network, [and] somehow the reciprocity flourished,” he says. “So we decided to use ‘the willingness to share’ as a form of payment.” In other words, people could co-work for free as long as they agreed to help each other.
Although S2M is a for-profit company, Van den Hoff says its detachment from venture capital and other forms of investment return imperatives has empowered this model of sharing work among freelancers.
“The main limit is people themselves: the moment startups are financed by VC’s, they are protecting their assets — ‘it is my database, my network, my clients’ — and they lose their ability to share,” he says.
S2M is redefining work and workers’ relationship to each other in important ways. Providing free workspace to those who help each other, for instance, represents the seed of a new social contract between workers, rather than between workers and companies. The organization’s community is rooted in peer support.
New Zealand’s Enspiral Network has also created an inspired model of freelancer collaboration and community. What began as a coworking space among like-minded people in Wellington six years ago has evolved into a new-fangled cooperative linking freelancers and social enterprises in a global network of mutual aid and collective action.
Like other freelancer collectives, Enspiral, has grown beyond simply sharing a physical space. The organization mixes independence and collectivism, enabling creative workers such as graphic designers, tech gurus, data whizzes, and others to pursue their ventures — with administrative and other support systems funded collectively by the group’s members.
The Enspiral Foundation, a charity run by Enspiral members, provides the connective tissue between the community’s contributing members, freelancers, and social enterprises alike. Contributors voluntarily donate to the foundation, and decide democratically how to use the money to improve their social impact and business prospects. Together, contributors’ have created Enspiral Services, a “market-facing” entity where they promote their services collectively.
Among the group’s many innovations is Loomio Cooperative, whose main offering is an open source democratic decision-making platform. Launched in 2012 when Enspiral members and Occupy activists recognized a need for collaborative decision-making tools, Loomio is simultaneously a limited liability company with investors and a registered worker-owned cooperative.
All these organizations represent new models of independent and interdependent worker communities supporting each other’s work socially, professionally, and collaboratively — created from scratch, without huge amounts of capital, big investors, or bureaucracy.
The cooperative explosion
Growing numbers of freelancers are also seeking out or creating cooperatives — some organized as online platforms, others old-fashioned brick-and-mortar — for community and financial stability.
Despite many distinctions, what unites platform co-ops and traditional worker co-ops is their focus on shared worker power and profits. “In the 19th and 20th century, the shop floor was the primary arena for worker organizing, now it’s platforms,” says Nathan Schneider, writer and scholar-in-residence at the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Amid the demise of the labor social contract and the rise of contingent work, says Schneider, the gig economy creates “atomized and individualized participants, and is really structured for us to be competing with each other.”
“We need to imagine alternatives to that model,” Schneider says.
As the gig economy has centralized profits while decentralizing work, digital activists and entrepreneurial creators are launching slews of platform cooperatives — websites and mobile apps that provide a service or sell a product but that share ownership, governance, and profits with users. Tech-savvy sharers have created cooperative online marketplaces and peer-to-peer venues like Stocksy and Fairmondo, where the creators and producers run the show.
Fairmondo, founded in Germany in 2012, is a platform co-op alternative to eBay where the more than 2,000 online sellers are member-owners. It puts openness, fairness, and democracy at the core of the enterprise. Co-op employees choose at least half of Fairmondo’s executive board, and major business decisions are made democratically through a general assembly of members. To support their global expansion, Fairmondo is developing a network of self-directed local cooperatives, including one in the UK soon.
“We have seen phenomenal growth of worker co-ops in the past ten years, partly because workers are more precarious, more vulnerable,” says Melissa Hoover, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives. “We see people starting worker co-ops to gain protections, because they are too vulnerable on their own. When you’re an independent worker, it’s harder to bargain than when you are part of a cooperative.”
Particularly inspiring, says Hoover, is the “exploding trend” of service sector worker co-ops, many of them launched by immigrant women.
Caregivers, domestic workers, and taxi drivers are joining forces in worker-led and often union-supported ventures to reclaim power and voice in their work. Teaming up with unions and worker advocacy groups such as Make the Road New York, workers are starting co-op businesses providing services such as domestic care and ride hailing services.
“There’s so much focus on Uber drivers, but nobody cares about the day laborers, nobody cares about the domestic workers,” says Emergent Research’s King. “We have to remember this economic shift is hitting people hard, and we have to focus on the ones getting hit the hardest.”
In New York City, transgender Latina beauticians, long suffering discrimination and abuse, are forming their own worker-owned business. “The girls got immediately excited by the idea of creating a business where they would be the sole owners, where there wouldn’t be any bosses verbally and physically harassing them, and where they could earn a dignified wage to survive,” Daniel Puerto, worker cooperative developer at Make the Road New York, a nonprofit that fights for the rights of minorities, told ink.nyc.
Taxi driver co-ops are also paving the way to increased wages, diminished pay gaps between managers and employees, and cab driver healthcare — all while producing a profit, according to a 2015 Democracy at Work report.
Denver alone is home to two driver-run taxi co-ops, showing there is plenty of interest and promise in this alternative. The biggest, Green Taxi Cooperative, employs more than 700 drivers, unionized within the Communication Workers of America, which represents numerous cab worker co-ops. Union Taxi, another taxi driver co-op supported by CWA, slashed drivers’ car lease rate by two-thirds, increasing their earning power and free time.
This May, the New York-based Independent Drivers Guild (IDG) secured an agreement to improve pay, benefits, and working conditions for more than 35,000 Uber drivers, who are treated as independent contractors and thus denied workers’ compensation and other protections. The IDG, affiliated with the Machinists Union, gives these app-based drivers the collective power to improve their earnings and fight abuses on the job.
Through the guild, “our voice will be heard,” says longtime New York City driver and organizer Muhammed Barlas. “More money comes into their pocket, plus they have some protection,” he says.
The two-tiered platform economy
Of course, not everyone is finding entrepreneurial success. The gig economy notion of workers opting in droves to become well-paid freelancers masks a more complicated reality. For every finely paid independent consultant, there are many more “freelance” domestic workers, janitors, and others contending with lower wages and precarious work.
Surveys simultaneously show that a majority of freelance workers want to remain independent, and that an increasing percentage of the labor market — particularly Millennials and minorities — have difficulty attaining adequate paying full-time employment.
Depending on factors ranging from pay and economic leverage to issues of entrepreneurialism and risk, what represents precarious work for some also marks independence for others. Many experience both.
The issue of worker choice is central to whether freelancers and other independent toilers are satisfied with their situation, says Emergent Research’s King. “Consistently fifty to sixty percent of those doing independent work tell us they chose it and they like it,” he says. “About thirty percent say they hate it and want to go back. A lot of it is psychology, people’s risk profiles.”
Our “choices” as workers operate in a context and continuum of real and perceived options — as well as our ability to command high enough wages that we can exercise that free choice.
What dictates worker choice, freedom, and power is not always so clear-cut. “Whether you’re a freelancer by choice or by necessity, what we’re seeing is that the line is increasingly blurry,” says Melissa Hoover, executive director of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives.
For instance, Hoover says, some lower-paid independent workers are highly entrepreneurial, while, adjunct professions may not want to be working on a freelance basis.
“There’s a substantive difference between freelancers organizing to get more work, and independent workers protecting themselves against abuse on the job,” she says.
At the same time, Hoover says, high wage freelancers also need basic legal protections. “The common thread is that without an employer there’s very little protection, very little stability,” she says. “Whether you’re freelancing by choice or not, you’re still dealing with the externalization of costs by employers.”
Despite the risks and uncertainty, researchers for the “Not Alone” report concluded that many self-employed workers “enjoy working this way and would not necessarily want to return to a traditional job.”
“While this does not disguise their low income and their social and economic insecurity, a key point to take into account is that they do not necessarily want ‘saving’ or ‘rescuing’ from self-employment but instead seek recognition, support, and assurance that the risks and rewards of their status are balanced fairly between them and the organisations they trade with,” the report noted.
The role of unions
Unions may seem an afterthought in today’s disarrayed economy, where only eight percent of the private sector workforce enjoys collective bargaining power. Yet, while still organizing millions of workers directly on job sites, unions play an equally important role as supporting actor for worker alliances, cooperatives, and guilds seeking to galvanize freelancers’ power.
“Labor was built firm by firm, sector by sector — now the economy is far more fluid,” says Institute for the Future’s Natalie Foster. Since the early 1990s when the “temping of America” and contingent work disrupted traditional shop-floor organizing based on a single worksite, unions have scrambled to adapt to this atomized workforce.
Technology may be part problem and part solution. The tech-based jobs in the gig economy have further dispersed workers and jobs, making it harder for unions to connect and organize — but many unions are embracing both shoe leather and digital organizing.
With support from The American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and more than 50 community-based domestic worker groups around the country, the Domestic Workers Alliance has emerged as a change agent for thousands of nannies, housekeepers, and caregivers across the U.S. who are pressured into independent contractor status marked by unlivable wages and abuse on the job.
As more of this “work that makes all other work possible” gets farmed out via online platforms such as care.com and handy.com, these workers — largely immigrant women and women of color — become further isolated.
“The more companies go online to find domestic workers, they’re getting all their workers on their platform, it’s really affecting how workers find work,” says Barbara Young, national organizing director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), and a 17-year veteran of domestic work herself.
Many domestic workers endure 60-hour work weeks with no overtime pay, harassment and abuse, no time off for personal health, and lack of clarity about their pay and job security, says Young. Nearly one in four are paid below their state’s minimum wage.
An NDWA survey found that domestic work is one of the fastest growing sectors of the economy, Young says. “But the reality of the work is it’s very unstable and insecure.”
Young says platforms like care.com initially offered $5 an hour domestic jobs, but “we said it’s too low, you’re breaking the law,” and eventually, with pressure from her organization and its 20,000 domestic workers, some firms improved.
Another domestic worker alliance initiative, Fair Care Labs, helps spawn market-based and technology-driven ventures to create a just future for the industry.
“As more domestic work shifts online, through on-demand platforms in the gig economy and online marketplaces, the issues related to domestic work have been shifted, not solved,” Palak Shah, the group’s alliance director of social innovations, explains on the group’s website. “We want to effect change while the DNA of the online economy is still being written.”
As this “DNA” writes itself, the AFL-CIO and many worker advocacy groups are promoting public policies to help protect the millions of on-demand workers who may not benefit from platform innovations.
In its agenda for the on-demand economy, the labor umbrella group promotes racial and gender equity in new digital economy jobs, advocates for new approaches to hold companies accountable for their working conditions, and champions portable benefits policies that will provide workers with a robust safety net.
Beyond equitable wages and protections, however, lie equally important if less tangible challenges: How can we ensure that these emerging freelancers’ collectives are able to sustain their work in the long-term? What role could public policy play in supporting these efforts? Can these communities find ways to share their knowledge and lessons learned to aid future freelancer initiatives?
Amid a fractured employment world marked by invention and insecurity, freelancers are confronting macro-level economic challenges as well as age-old tensions between individualism and collectivism.
Even a successful story like Enspiral remains both inspiring and cautionary.
“Our freelancer co-op model is still underdeveloped,” cofounder Joshua Vial explains. “We face many unsolved challenges such as recruiting leadership, providing income security, managing quality, securing sufficient working capital, resourcing work ‘on’ the business and supporting people without managing them.”
As the economy promotes this dizzying mix of exploitation and inventive community-building, freelance workers — in both higher and lower wage sectors — are fighting for legal rights, creating new work arrangements, and building businesses with social vision. Somewhere between economic coercion and human agency, with plenty of success and struggle, freelancers are finding their way through the economic wilderness.
Our gratitude goes to Steve King and family who provided funding for this piece and other stories on freelancing, platform cooperatives, and libraries.
Freelance collectives — stronger together. Photo: Mike Benedetti, Flickr.