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Temp Worker Nation: If You Do Get Hired, It Might Not Be for Long

Writers and warehouse workers, janitors and business consultants, truck drivers and graphic designers -- none have a social safety net.

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Walmart insists on ever-lower costs, so “workers are the ones getting squeezed and chiseled,” says Ruckelshaus. “This relationship is hurting low-wage women and those at the bottom of the supply chains, and the big corporations aren’t being held accountable for low wages and poor conditions.”

Another issue is that freelancers have almost no recourse if an employer cheats them. State wage-theft laws do not cover freelancers. If a client stiffs them, it’s considered a business dispute, so their only recourse is to sue in small-claims court. That can take months and multiple court appearances, and even if you win your case, collecting the debt is not guaranteed.

The Freelancers Union says 77 percent of its 180,000 members have had trouble collecting money they're owed. Earlier this year, it lobbied for New York to enact a law that would let stiffed freelancers file wage-theft complaints with the state Department of Labor. But in New York’s gerrymandered legislature, the measure wound up as a “one-house bill”: It passed in the Democrat-dominated Assembly, but never reached the floor in the Republican-controlled state Senate.

“If you have 30 percent of the workforce being exploited, that lowers standards for everybody,” says Johansson.

What Can Be Done?

Traditional union organizing is notoriously difficult with contingent workers. Organized labor’s strongest power over employers is workers’ ability to go on strike and stop production. If freelancers try that on their own, the employer will simply hire someone else. That they have neither a common location nor a collective workforce are also barriers to organizing collectively.

The Writers’ Guild of America, a union of TV and movie screenwriters, has successfully organized freelancers, winning elections and creating collective-bargaining agreements at studios. In July, it won company-paid health benefits, paid vacation, and a minimum salary for writers at two New York reality-show studios. But its 4,000 members’ status is much closer to permanent workers than most freelancers are. They usually work on long-term contracts, typically three or four years, and have “professional relationships and solidarity among themselves,” says Justin Molito.

“This is a long-term movement to aid those who’ve fallen through the cracks,” Molito says. “As other industries become more freelance, the labor movement has to develop strategies to create organizations that provide protections and make improvements.” Those strategies include “building a long-term movement, raising standards across the board, trying to organize an entire industry.”

The Freelancers’ Union’s Horowitz has largely abandoned the traditional union model, to the point where the organization might be more accurately described as a service and lobbying group than a labor union. Permanent workers are losing security and benefits, she says, so why should freelancers expect them?

“I exist in reality,” she says. “The first step is to admit that something’s changed.”

Instead, she touts what she calls the “new mutualism,” freelancers banding together on the principles of “affinity and solidarity,” such as networking and organizing cooperatives to buy food and health insurance. (The group sells nonprofit health insurance to 23,000 members in New York, and plans to expand that to New Jersey and Oregon in 2014, when the Obamacare insurance exchanges open.)

But how is any of that going to help get freelancers paid sick days? “Good luck with that,” she answers.

Organized freelancers “will be able to make the freelance economy work even better,” she explains in an e-mail, “by influencing the freelance labor market, by continuing to improve the laws that affect freelancers (i.e., passing legislation to give freelancers recourse when they are stiffed) and by continuing to give freelancers opportunities to work together.” On the other hand, she says the Freelancers Union will not be able on its own to “reverse larger economic trends” like declining wages in the media industry.