I have a confession: I signed up for the Freelancers Union over a year ago and haven’t thought about it since. (Well, at least until I was asked to write this piece.)
But not everyone’s like me. Roseda Molina took a far more proactive approach when she joined the organization in 2009, and her enthusiasm led to years of benefits that more passive members like myself have been missing out on.
“When I saw the Freelancers Union had launched, I just loved the idea of it,” she said. “When I first started freelancing there was nothing like this, and it’s still pretty much the wild, wild West out there. There’s no reason why there can’t be some ethical benchmarks.”
Growing up with two parents who were members of strong unions — her mother a school teacher, her father an electrician—Molina jumped at the chance to join one. Though she has her own health insurance, the Bronx-based freelance writer participates in online and in-person events, enjoys her member-to-member discounts, and has gleaned advice from the Freelancers Union blog that made her life easier. Mostly, she said, she’s such a fan of the organization because of the networking opportunities.
“You’d think it would be incredibly competitive, but when you’re networking, you never find someone who is doing the exact same thing as you are,” she said. “It fosters more of a supportive environment.”
That connectivity between freelancers of all stripes is exactly what the union wants to create. Dan Lavoie, Manager of Executive Communications Strategy, calls it the power of New Mutualism. “We’ve come to realize the best resource we have to offer to our freelancers is each other,” Lavoie said. “There is an incredible strength in their collective talent and collective insight.”
At local networking events near the Freelancers Union home base in Brooklyn, or on the Freelancers Union blog, you can see New Mutualism in action when a freelance artist recommends the best business card vendor to a freelance writer, or when an opera singer and a photographer work together to decide how to best claim their Airbnb income on their taxes. Such collaborations have eventually become permanent tools on the Freelancers Union site, like the Contract Creator, which walks workers through a template for custom contracts. Unsurprisingly, the tool that was coded and reviewed by freelance programmers and lawyers.
“Our blog has really ramped up with crowdsourced tips and ways for people to help each other navigate the freelancer life,” Lavoie said. “Nobody knows the answers to these big questions the economy is facing better.”
What some members (ahem) overlook is the degree of networking available online. The union offers popular local networking events, as well as Freelancers Union Halls with copay-free healthcare, free yoga, tai chi, co-working, and other activities in Brooklyn and Lower Manhattan. Those are undeniably great benefits for freelancers in the New York area, but also ones with obvious restrictions when you’re trying to serve a nationwide membership.
“Although I am a member of the Freelancers Union, I wouldn’t say it’s benefited me. At least, not yet,” said Jesaka Long, a writer from Colorado. “Part of that is probably because I live in Denver, instead of New York and Washington, where Freelancers Union has set up so many great things.”
Like a number of members, Long still supports the union and engages with their content even if she feels a bit disconnected. Lavoie said that The Freelancer Union aware of that concern, and they’re on a mission to remedy it.
“About 125,000 of our members are outside of New York state,” he added. “What we are trying to do moving ahead is figure out how to connect more with those people. Connect them to the institution for sure, but also to each other.”
It turns out—surprise, surprise—how much you benefit from the Freelancers Union is proportional to how much you interact with the network. Sure, there are tangible benefits accessible on the website, like a 401(k) retirement plan, but the real benefit of the Freelancers Union comes from the very process of building the network together.
“It doesn’t cost anything to join,” Molina said. “There is nothing to lose and everything to gain.”
Image via Freelancers Union