Yesterday, the staff of Freelancers Union had our second discussion on labor history. (Read the first post here.) In preparation, we read "Open Source Unionism," an influential (and sometimes controversial) essay from 2002, by Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers. A version of their argument is available at The Nation.

Sara Horowitz and labor history Executive Director Sara Horowitze presents questions for discussion to the staff.

After briefly reviewing the evolution of craft and industrial unions, we discussed open source unionism, as Freeman and Rogers conceive it, and how it relates to what Freelancers Union does. Some of the key features of open source unionism:

  • Organizes workers across industries and occupations
  • Membership continues even when the worker switches employers
  • Delivery of services not just through the workplace, but also through the web and (offline) communities
  • Collective bargaining where possible, but also political mobilization and individual representation and advice
  • Instead of strikes and group arbitration, members take action through public campaigns, community pressure, and "cyber picketing"
  • Democracy effected not just through votes but through market forces
  • Many member types, with "graduated power and dues proportionate to commitment, and services offered"
    Some of these things look a lot like what we're doing at Freelancers Union: our membership spans many industries and occupations; members choose their own level of financial involvement based on the services they need; services are delivered without reference to the workplace. On the other hand, Freeman and Rogers list a number of elements that don't take place through this organization at all. Freelancers Union doesn't engage in collective bargaining (unless you call negotiating a lower health insurance rate for the whole group "collective bargaining"). Some of them we hope to initiate, such as geographic coordination and more local, in-person meet-ups. (Keep an eye on our events page for upcoming networking events in the new year.) Those of us in the discussion found it really helpful to look at a non-traditional model for unionism as way of understanding what, exactly, Freelancers Union is. We're going to pursue this thread of inquiry, and next time we'll be discussing mutual aid societies, craft guilds, and similar organizations.