Tag Archives: Freelancers Union

Freelancers (and Coworking) in Popular Culture? [repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

This month, the Freelancers Union* asks “Where are all the freelance characters on TV?” [1]  They point out that even in more or less realistic shows, few people identify themselves as “Freelancers”, even in cases where they work as writers and similar gig workers.  Worse, some of the portrayals are wildly unrepresentative of how real freelancers live.  Is anyone surprised that corporate entertainment media is oblivious if not outright hostile toward the lives of real workers?

(In part, there is a semantic issue here.  Actors and Writers generally are gig workers, but they identify with their profession, not with their contractual arrangement.  A thespian is “an Actor”, not “a Freelancer”.  May dramatists just don’t think about “freelancer” as an identity for a character.)

The article hones in on the apparent lack of medical insurance even for characters who get hurt or have a baby.  Huh?  If the only thing you find unrealistic about Sex and the City is that the show doesn’t discuss medical insurance….

Eventually, it becomes clear that the FU is actually advocating their own insurance products, which explains that specific emphasis.  And, yeah, its important, and yeah, I’m glad the FU is on it.

Anyway, the title does actually raise a good point.  Freelancing and Coworking are important work life experiences for a growing number of people, and something that young people should know about because they may want to or have to be part of the gig economy.  So it would be nice to have realistic role models in popular culture—for better or worse.

Personally, I’m not going to watch anything that spends a lot of time worrying about the challenges of health insurance for gig workers.  But why not have a ‘cheers’ set in a coworking space?  Why not have more shows about interesting gig workers, and fewer shows about obnoxious billionaires?

It would be particularly valuable for young people to see and to identify with some good examples of gig workers.  People who have to hustle for gigs, are responsible for delivering their contracts, who constantly learn, and who are good members of a coworking community.  People who more or less successfully balance work and family life.  Etc.  You know–real people.

So, how could this come to be?

Well…the FU surely has within its membership more than enough talent to create such popular fiction in every medium.  It would certainly be apt for freelancers of the FU to tell our own story this way….


*Disclosure:  I am a proud member of the FU.


  1. Freelancers Union, Where are all the freelance characters on TV?, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/01/06/where-are-all-the-freelance-tv-characters/

 

(For much more on the Future of Work, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

What is Coworking?

Report on Freelancing in NYC 2019 [repost]

[This was posted earlier here.]

The Freelancers Union* has released a new survey of “Freelancing in New York City” [2].

The headline number is that 34% of workers in NYC “is freelancing”.  Wow!  (That would be over a million workers.)  The study finds that in “media and entertainment” 61% of workers have freelanced in the past year.

The report touts the Big Apple as an especially favorable environment for freelancers, for the same reason as it is favorable for all workers (opportunity, professional networking, etc.)

So what does this all mean?

First of all, this is a web survey, which means that it is pretty difficult to assess how representative it might be.  I tend to be skeptical of the reported margins of error, given the format of the survey.  Granted, the target group of the survey is comparatively likely to be reached and sampled by this methodology, but who knows?

This study surveyed 5,000 residents in NYC who work in the greater NYC metro area. Within this NYC worker population, the study looked at those who freelance (N=1728) and media and entertainment workers who freelance (N=432). The study was fielded from March 22, 2019 to April 18, 2019. Margin of error for each audience group are as follows: NYC Workers Overall: ±1.3% at the 95% level of confidence. NYC Freelancers: ±2.3%, NYC Non-freelancers ±1.7%, Media & Entertainment freelancers ±4.7” (From [2])

A more important point is that the definition of “freelancer” seems to be “anyone who reports working freelance at any time during the year”.  This includes people who work exclusively or mainly as independent contractors, but also moonlighters who have a conventional job.  As far as I can tell, the definition of a gig is up to the respondent, and one gig of as little as a few hours might be counted as “freelancing” for this study.  In other studies from this group, the workers who could be considered primarily freelancing are considerably fewer than the most inclusive definition, so the headline about “one third of workers” is misleading.

Nevertheless, the findings about the “media and entertainment” sector are plausible.  These industries have always been filled by part time and independent workers, so in this sense nothing has changed in this supposedly “new” gig economy.

The survey found that the responding freelancers are worried about their irregular work and income, and also about late or non-payment. If these workers can’t get enough work in this economy, then there certainly should be very real concern for what will happen in the next downturn.

One interest point the report emphasizes is that many freelancers indicate that the choose to freelance.  (This is a pretty important ideological point for the FU.)  But, if two thirds of “media and entertainment” workers are freelancers, it sounds like there isn’t all that much choice about it—you freelance or you don’t work.  Perhaps the emphasis on how much freelancers prefer freelancing is a bit of cognitive dissonance, putting forward the positives for what must be done out of necessity.  Or perhaps contemporary freelancing is a “better way” to do what desperate screenwriters have always done.

What does this survey mean to the rest of us, who are not in NYC?   In other parts of the world, I bet the freelance life is pretty similar, if not as trendy as the Big Apple.

The sixty four million dollar question is whether you need to actually live in NYC, or not to succeed.  Freelancing or not, NYC has huge opportunities, but you’ll have to scramble to make the most of them.  Perhaps freelancing is particularly suited to this scramble, in any case it certainly is the way many workers live.

Lots of other surveys show that many freelancers work remotely, which means that it should be possible, in principle, to participate in the NYC markets while living back home.  So why move to the city?

I’ll note that this survey apparently doesn’t sample workers who live elsewhere but “work in NYC”.  I suspect there are a fair number of them, and that’s probably a bigger story than whether they are freelancers or not.


  1. Caitlin Pearce, The first Freelancing in NYC study shows that 1 in 3 NYC workers is freelancing, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/09/10/freelancing-in-nyc-2019/
  2. Freelancers Union, Upwork, and New York City Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment, Freelancing in New York City 2019. Freelancers Union, New York, 2019. https://www.freelancersunion.org/documents/36/Freelancing_in_New_York_Report_2019.pdf

*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.

(

For much more on what makes coworking tick, see the book “What is Coworking?”)

 

What is Coworking?

Annual report: Freelancing in America 2017

Every year the Freelancers Union*  produces a report on “Freelancing in America”.

This year’s report follows up the 2016 report, asserting that 57.3 million workers are freelancing, including 47% of “millennials” [2].   The total is up from 55 million in 2016 and 54 million in 2015. They project forward from these figures to imagine that freelancers will be more than 50% of workers by 2027.

As in the previous reports, this report defines “freelancer” to be “Individuals who have engaged in supplemental, temporary, project- or contract- based work, within the past 12 months.” [1] However, examining the methodology, these labels are misleading (from [1]):

Diversified Workers (a mix of employment, including freelancing) (35% / 19.8 million)

Independent Contractors (full or part time) (31% of the independent workforce / 17.7 million professionals)

Moonlighters (23% / 13.0 million)

Freelance Business Owners (who define themselves as “freelance workers”) (6% / 3.4 million)

Clearly, the number of freelance workers who have the equivalent to a full time job is much smaller than 57 millions, perhaps 20-30 million depending on how you classify self-employed business owners. (Considering this, the future projection is even less believable.)

I quibble about this point because the report portrays freelancing as the future of work, and paints a rosy picture. However, if the future of work is mainly about underemployment and self-employment, this is not such a rosy picture.

In this survey, the self-identified full time freelancers report an average of 34 hours of work per week [1]. In addition, freelancers report income unpredictability, low savings, and high debt. Many freelancers rely on ACA for health insurance, which is highly uncertain at this time.

In short, freelancers may report high satisfaction, and a determination to never choose conventional employment, the objective measures describe marginal employment, and possibly a race to the bottom.


The 2017 report focuses on several impacts of technology. Obviously, the gig economy is enabled by digital technology, and a majority of freelancers report finding work online.

The report spins freelancing as an adaptation to the “fourth industrial revolution”.

Freelancers report anxiety about AI and robotics displacing them. Nearly half of them say that they have already been affected. Freelancers expect technical change, and upgrade their skills frequently. (Online job services are a good guide to chasing the demand for specific skills.)

It is clear that freelancers are in the front lines of this revolution, though it isn’t clear that they are doing better than other workers, or that freelancing is either necessary or sufficient to survive.


Sara Horowitz demands that we “don’t call it the gig economy”. Nearly half of freelancers prefer to call it “the freelance economy” [3]. That’s fine, and obviously its the Freelancers Union, not the Gig Workers Union. (Though The Gig Workers of the World would be a great name for either a union or a rock band. Slogan: “Gig Strong! Gig power!”)

Look, I’m a member of the FU, and I strongly support the union and stand with my fellow workers (whatever they care to call themselves). One for all, and all for one.

But I can’t let this kind of misuse of data pass without objection.

Freelancing is important, and it is a significant part of the new way of work. But it isn’t reasonable to claim that it is going to be the predominant mode of employment any time soon (if ever). And if it does dominate the economy, it will be an economy characterized by massive under employment, economic insecurity, and poverty.

The whole point of the FU is prevent the last part from coming true. Let’s not lie to ourselves about it.


*Disclosure: I am a proud member of the FU.


  1. Edelman Intellignece, Freelancing in America: 2017. Freelancers Union, 2017. https://www.slideshare.net/upwork/freelancing-in-america-2017/1
  2. Freelancers Union and UpWork, Freelancing in America: 2017. Freelancers Union, 2017. https://s3.amazonaws.com/fuwt-prod-storage/content/FreelancingInAmericaReport-2017.pdf
  3. Sara Horowitz, Freelancing in America 2017, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/10/17/freelancing-in-america-2017/

 

Seldon on Love and Freelancing

Sensei Tyra Seldon asks, “Can love be the guiding force of your business?” [1]

She had me at “love”.

When we think of passion, compassion, and even love, we may associate these words with romantic or familial relationships. Rarely do we link these terms to business.

The problem is, of course, that we “want to be profitable, but we also want compassion to be a cornerstone of what we do”. This almost always leads to choices, often tough choices.

Practically anybody can make money, but how you make your money and what you compromise to do it are equally as important.

Writing for the Freelancers Union Blog, she points out that this is particularly tough for independent workers, who may not have a business degree or classwork in business ethics for guidance. A gig worker who is learning as she goes has to “be careful because unethical business practices can be subtle.” As she says, a business opportunity, any business opportunity, may be “incongruent” with your own values.

The good news is that an independent worker can walk away. It’s not so easy to quit a job and walk away from a career when a large organization chooses a problematic business. But a freelancer can say “no, thanks” to any job.

The bad news is that not only could you starve to death trying to be ethical, but you are on your own. Working for a large organization is easy, because you can delegate ethics to others. A freelancer has no choice but to choose for himself.

I will say that I consider not having an MBA and training in “business ethics” to actually be beneficial. The very fact that business schools feel a need for a specific course in “ethics” tells you that the rest of the curriculum is not about ethics. As far as I can tell, business school is all about teaching people to ignore normal human ethics in favor of some kind of economic rationalism.

My own view is that there is no such thing as “business ethics”. There are only personal ethics. You have to know your own values, and make your business conform to you. This is not what they teach at business school.

As Sensei Seldon points out,  one of the real advantages of freelancing is that you can say things like:

  • I am in love with my company.
  • I am passionate about sharing my goods and services with the world.
  • I demonstrate compassion when interfacing with my clients.

(See other posts by Seldon on Freelancing here.)


  1. Tyra Seldon, Can love be the guiding force of your business?, in Frrelancers Union – Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/07/31/can-love-be-the-guiding-force-of-your-business-2/

Jinks On the “Freelancing Mindset”

Bryan Jinks blogs this month that it is important for Freelancers to think like a freelancer, i.e., not like an ‘employee’.

Freelancing is not just like being an employee with more freedom. They are two completely different things, and need to be looked at from different perspectives.

For Freelancers who are used to being employees, or people who take up Freelancing, it is crucial to understand the difference, or else face a terrible economic disaster (by dramatically undercharging).

He highlights two basic things to keep in mind. First, your charges (e.g., your hourly rate) must include all the overheads that are not mentioned in the salary or scale of an employee: taxes, benefits, business expenses, etc. A Freelance worker must pay these him or herself out of their billed rate, so the rate must be a lot higher than an employee’s rate for the same job.

The second issue is the importance of accounting for what may be sporadic gigs, and the overhead of finding gigs. A Freelancer must factor the work needed to set up the gig into the hourly charges for the work time.

The bottom line is that Freelance work is a business, and needs to be run like a business.

If you can forget the employee mindset and view your income like a business owner, you’ll have a more realistic view of your finances.

I note that part of the value of the Freelancers Union  is that it provides not only advice on this topic, but also resources to help Freelancers tackle all this business goop. This now includes resources such as a tool for creating contracts and an app to find legal help.

Enspiral is also creating open tools for project management and other business support, as is Loomio, These tools and services make it possible for a worker to get all the stuff you get from  being part of a large company, except everything is peer-to-peer.

(There are zillions of commercial services that do the same things as well.)

I have to say that this biz stuff is a big reason why I probably never will be a successful freelancer. I just don’t think like a business owner, and frankly, I don’t want to think that way.

I suspect that the only way I would make it at all would be with the kind of help that the FU and the others are creating.

I’m sure I’m not the only one who thinks like this, and in any case, no one is expert at everything. So these efforts are surely the right idea. As I said in an earlier post, this is putting “tools in the hands of the workers” in the 21st century.


  1. Bryan Jinks, Why freelancers can’t approach money with an “employee” mindset, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/05/31/why-freelancers-cant-approach-money-with-an-employee-mindset/

Seldon on Racial Divide in Freelancing

Tyra Seldon blogs about the racial divide in freelancing.

Studies suggest that there is a racial divide in freelancing, but the larger question is why?

It seems likely that there is a “gap”, even if there isn’t exceptionally solid data. Seldon points to a report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, which documents “self employment” statistics for the USA [2]. She notes that this isn’t necessarily the same as “freelancing”, but it does show that blacks are substantially less likely to be “self employed” than whites.

(I note in passing that the BLS counts 15 million self-employed, about 10.1% of the workforce. The Freelancers Union counts 55 million Freelancers, about 35% of workers [1]. The FU gets its larger number because it counts temporary workers, moonlighters, and others that may or may not be counted as self-employed by the BLS.)

The basic “gap” in the BLS data is the finding that roughly twice the percentage of white workers are self-employed compared to black / African American. ([2], p. 6) This difference is a bit larger than the same gap between men and women. We have to be careful here, because this number actually means that of black workers, a smaller proportion are self-employed versus employed by others, compared to white workers.  (What is the “right proportion”?)

I don’t want to belabor the statistics. There is plenty of other evidence of racial disparities in “the new economy”, including the old a “digital divide”, concerns about development of entrepreneurs [3], and observations about coworking communities.

Seldon’s main point is, why would this be?  And what can be done about it?

Seldon  solicited discussion from the support group she moderates. She highlights a comment that lists reasons why a black worker might not freelance.

  1. Lack of Security
  2. Lack of Representation
  3. Lack of Mentors
  4. Stretched too Thin

The first and fourth items are pretty generic challenges that are surely faced by every worker, especially from a poor family.  Freelancing is risky, at least if you have other opportunities.

Items 2 and 3 suggest the important cultural context. If you never meet a Freelancer, never have a strong role model, are not encouraged, then obviously you are less likely to try it. Again, this is a factor for many people, including women, older workers, working mothers, and so on.

Seldon is a passionate advocate for freelancing, and sees it as a vital and booming opportunity. She does not want people to be overlooked and left out “while the economy booms with opportunities”. I’m not so sure about the opportunities, but there is no reason for needless racial, gender or cultural sorting among Freelancers or anyone else.

I will add another point:  one of the strengths of freelancing is networking and collaboration among a community of peers. This works best of all when the pool is both diverse [5] and inclusive of the broader society. Freelancers will produce better work if they are working with a variety of peers.  It’s that simple.

What can be done?

Seldon advocates “radical hospitality” (which is a theme from coworking communities, coliving, and community spaces), mentoring, and general “reaching out”. I agree. Freelancing isn’t all about handling money, contracts, etc. It’s about working together.

 

I note that coworking is successful partly because there is an emerging cadre of effective community leaders who practice and teach “radical hospitality” and community feeling.

Coworking also offers a caution. There are a great variety of coworking spaces, with different communities and cultural vibes. Coworkers self-select a workplace and community that suits them. This has resulted in happy workers, but also workplaces that are not a cross-section of their local community (however you define that).

As Samara Lynn advises, “Black startup owners may also want to search for co-working spaces with multiethnic staff and fellow entrepreneurs.” ([4], p. 38).

This self-segregation is not necessarily a great “solution” to the problem.

Finally, –I say, “get ‘em young”! The best way for people to grow up to be independent workers is for kids to want to be like those people. Freelancers should try to get into school, after school clubs, etc., to teach and practice radical hospitality for all kids.


  1. Freelancers Union, Freelancing in America: 2016. Freelancers Union and Upwork, New York, 2016. https://fu-prod-storage.s3.amazonaws.com/content/None/FreelancinginAmerica2016report.pdf
  2. Steven F. Hipple. and Laurel A. Hammond, Self-employment In The United States. Bureau of Labor Statistics., Washington, DC, 2016. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/1571/cf7d653ea85b9d77a305cad3b193ea17b1e6.pdf
  3. Julie S. Hui  and Shelly D. Farnham, Designing for Inclusion: Supporting Gender Diversity in Independent Innovation Teams, in Proceedings of the 19th International Conference on Supporting Group Work. 2016, ACM: Sanibel Island, Florida, USA. p. 71-85. https://northwestern.box.com/s/f1fxpxgmy2hxci1j8duablc7524p0skz
  4. Lynn, Samara, Finding the Perfect Co-working Space. Black Enterprise, 46 (9):58-59, 2016. http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=115709004&site=ehost-live
  5. Scott E. Page, The Difference: How the Power of Diversity Creates Better Groups, Firms, Schools, and Societies, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2007.
  6. Tyra Seldon, Freelancing and the racial divide, in FreelancersUnion Blog. 2017. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2017/05/25/freelancing-and-the-racial-divide/

 

Freelancers Union: The App

n the early twenty first, there’s an app for everything. Indeed, some people seem to think that if you don’t have an app, you aren’t for real.

This week the Freelancer’s Union (I’m a proud member since 2015) released a new ‘app’. As their web page puts it, “Solidarity? There’s An App For That.” This isn’t my grandfather’s union, that’s for sure!

OK, I’m game. Let’s do some more close reading here.


First, let me be very clear. The Freelancers Union is doing important stuff, and I strongly support them. You can’t talk about the future of work without talking about the future of workers.

But that does not mean that I will not do a close reading of their narrative or their recent forays into digital products.


Looking At The App

Just what exactly does this ‘Solidarity Forever: The App’ actually do? Does it connect us to our brothers and sisters in the Union? Does it help recruit more members? Does it host digital rallies? Does it ping our elected representatives about legislation? Could there possibly be a playlist of inspiring songs? Dare I hope for live sing alongs with our comrades around the world?

Maybe in version 2.0.

The current version does only one thing: connects you to legal advice.  Sigh. Useful, I suppose, but not nearly as exciting as on could hope.

You App Reveals Your Psyche

While I think this app misses an opportunity to show off FU as truly the new way of work (see below), it does reveal some facts about the FU and our members.

First of all, the fact that there is an app at all, indicates the desire for conventional branding, especially, to be current. The Union is real unless it’s got an app. Box checked.

Second, we find confirmation that the backbone of the union is in the ‘digital creatives’, especially in NYC. The release is accompanied by a social promotion campaign (standard fare for digital advertising), and the instructions simply say,

Post a photo of yourself holding up the app, with the caption “I stand with freelancers because [write your reason!]. #FreelancersUnionApp

It is obviously assumed that we know what “post” means, and think that posting selfies is a meaningful political act.

We also see clearly what is at the top of the worries for the union and the membership. The app does only one thing: it refers you to a lawyer. Glancing at the app, we see a list of the common categories of problem, and the number one suggested topic is  “nonpayment”.

The FU has been pointing on its #FreelancingIsntFree campaign for more than a year, so we get the picture. The same bastards who hire temps instead of permanent employees, also find it cost effective to not pay the temps.

Another glaring point is that, like much of the union’s activities, this offer is only available in NYC initially. The Union is open to everyone, even schlunks like me out in some cornfield, but they are effective on the ground only in a few cities, and mostly in NYC where they HQ. I’m pretty sure that the union would like to spread the goodness everywhere, but it tends to be a perennial disappointment out here in the cornfields, where we can read about, but not really get much real union action.

Anyway–see how much we can learn from close reading an app!


Let me try to be clear. There isn’t anything really wrong with this app, and I certainly support the FU and the purpose of this app.  The point is to see what the app really is, and think about what it could be.

Please let me go one more step and make some suggestions for version 2.

First of all, there could be a specialized social network, with union themed features. The network should be totally flat, because everyone is in one union. PMs should be limited to pings that say, “I got your back” (forget about “like”—we don’t have to “like” each other, just fight for each other :-)). The union might circulate petitions and calls to contact politicians.

Second, there could be solidarity themed ‘togetherness’ activities. Simple ways for the Union to organize flash crowds, marches, or picnics, where feasible.  Other activities might include walkabouts that alert you when union members are near (a la Look Up or even AR Pokemon).

In cases where, we can’t meet in person, lets have digital solidarity. Digital sing songs. Digital dance alongs. Casual games

One game I can think of is a simple trivia game to learn about the union an dits members. Flash cards with simple (non-invasive) information, like where, what you do, and a tag. Remember the most Union members and be famous! High multipliers for locations outside NYC, and for statistically unusual tags (rare occupation, older worker, etc.)

If we want to go Augmented Reality, then we could make union badges that are AR markers. When you encounter someone with their badge on, point the app at her or him. Poof, they are surrounded by halos and unicorns! Or some other magic, magic that only happens when two union members are together in physical space.

The point is, if you make the app cool enough, people will want to join the union, just to get the app!  Let’s put the union in the lead of social technology.

Join the union.