New Economy, New Workplace, New Unionists

Groat winner Horowitz ’84 organizes freelance community
Thursday, April 2, 2015

Fresh out of law school, Sara Horowitz ’84 was puzzled, but not for long.

Within days of joining a firm, Horowitz realized she was classified as an “independent worker” and wouldn’t receive health insurance and other benefits.

Horowitz was at the receiving end of a trend many say was borne of globalization and greed: employers declaring more workers “independent contractors” and assuming less responsibility for employees’ well-being.

“It got me really thinking. I could see businesses were restructuring,” said Horowitz, who 20 years ago went on to found Freelancers Union – now at more than 250,000 members nationwide and growing. Fifty-three million people, a third of the nation’s workers, are freelancers, according to a 2014 survey commissioned by the union.

From Brooklyn, she has also launched pieces of a social purpose business model that hearken to the era when unions provided a range of services workplaces did not.

Freelancers Insurance Company began offering health insurance in 2008. Last year, the union’s National Benefits Platform was formed. Members – who do not pay union dues – can access health, dental, retirement, disability and other insurances through the platform.

Freelancers Medical provides no-copay primary care to union members at Brooklyn and Manhattan sites. There and across the country, union members gather for Sparks, the union’s networking and education series. It coaches members on issues such as how to get paid. Non-payment for services provided is a recurring problem for many freelancers.

Horowitz came to the union concept naturally. She is the daughter of a unionized teacher and a labor lawyer, and the granddaughter of an International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union vice president. Sidney Hillman, a leading U.S. labor figure until his 1946 death, is her hero.

Horowitz remembers chuckling to herself as an ILR sophomore, “A 19-year-old should not be studying trade union administration.”

While a student in Ithaca, she helped university security guards campaign for a union, was president of the Cornell Organization for Labor Action and made her political opinions known at campus protests.

As executive director of Freelancers Union, Horowitz is matter of fact about its role in helping restore benefits and community to American workers working solo, and in contributing to an economically sustainable society.

“We need to be entrepreneurial and have the skills to network,” and have access to the kinds of safety nets Freelancers Union provides, she said.

Although the shift to freelance work has embittered some, it has been a door opener for many to more meaningful lives, said Horowitz, who will be honored by ILR in New York City, along with Alpern Award winner Beth Florin M.S. ’85 at the school’s annual Groat and Alpern Celebration.

“People are feeling very tired. They would like to slow down to be able to live in fuller ways. It’s time to be who they are. I get that,” she said.

Freelancers Union is 20 years old. Horowitz is confident about its future.

“We have a moral compass and a strategy for the future,” she said. “It feels like we’re starting to make a path. There really is a roadway here.”