• Advocacy

The Role of Unions in Today’s Society

Newsweek’s recent article “Do We Still Need Unions?” offers two opposing views: Ezra Klein weighing in on “why they’re worth fighting for” versus Mark McKinnon’s push to “end a privileged class.” Our question is, how do independent workers, who are now one-third of the workforce, relate to traditional unions? Mr. Klein contends that workers need the enlarging, leveraging power of unions to give them enough weight and voice in a world in which large companies and government would otherwise make all the decisions. He and many others have also argued that unions have been a tide that lifts all boats—raising wages for non-union workers and bringing political power to bear on social justice issues (like the Civil Rights Act). Mr. McKinnon believes that in becoming a political "counterweight," as Mr. Klein describes it, unions have become as distorting an influence as other large, moneyed interests. He disagrees with the mandatory payment of dues for all public employees, and believes existing laws provide enough protection for workers' interests and rights. Freelancers Union's model of "new unionism" may offer a third way. We think of ourselves as "cousins" of the traditional labor movement. We’re in a unique position because we are part of, and built from, the union movement—bringing workers together to meet a common need. Like other traditional unions, we advocate with and for our members. Some of our work resembles that of traditional unions - we have a Political Action Committee that supports candidates who are committed to freelancer issues. Other tactics are less traditional, like our reliance on online platforms, since freelancers across a myriad of industries can't organize on the factory floor. We don't collective bargain and don't charge dues, but rather use our swelling numbers to create power in politics and power in markets for a critical chunk of our economy that lacks basic protections and benefits. We see our work as building off a long history of traditional labor and evolving that model for the new workforce—a diverse, mobile, and flexible workforce. We realize that workers can no longer expect to work for a single employer full-time for their entire career. Instead, many people today are self-employed or holding down multiple, temporary, or part-time jobs. Traditional unions work well for those with traditional jobs, but this doesn't mean that the need for mutual aid and political action is gone. Quite the contrary. The rapid and drastic changes to the way people work now—and the equally quick disappearance of the benefits and security jobs used to bring—call for more awareness and more action than ever. In the 1970s, 25% of private workers were in unions. Today, just 7% are. Freelancers Union membership continues to grow, in large part because we’re supporting a new emergent workforce. With the insecure economy, our nation's task to make stable, middle-class livelihoods accessible is far from over. In order to meet the changes and challenges of our new workforce, innovations will be necessary on all fronts—and that's what we're constantly working toward. (photo by Ricardipus, via Flickr)