A Decade On, Freelancers Union Founder Sara Horowitz Takes Her Fight Mainstream

Hive mind

"The models are already there!" Sara Horowitz shouts over traffic in downtown Brooklyn. "All these people in the 1920s, they figured it out before us!"

With her frizzy hair, sensible shoes, and woolen hat, the 50-year-old founder of the Freelancers Union wouldn't have looked too out of place in the '20s herself. She's like the history professor who lit a fire in our chests and made us think the world was ours to change. But while most of us moved on from the Bill of Rights, Lincoln, and Eugene Debs to a life of mortgage payments and Top Chef reruns, Horowitz took up the challenge. And she did change the world, or at least a little part of it.

Back in 2003, Horowitz founded the Freelancers Union with a practical, if limited, goal—to help independent workers find affordable health insurance and build a financial safety net for themselves. Her idea couldn't have been more timely. Within a few years, the Great Recession began stripping jobs and support systems from countless workers in the city. But as opposed to the New Deal of the 1930s, when the void opened up by the Depression was filled largely by the government, this time around there's only so much Washington, the state, and the city are willing to do. "The government's not there just yet," says Horowitz, in a masterful bit of understatement. "So for now it has to be more DIY."

Sara Horowitz
Caleb Ferguson
Sara Horowitz

Today, the Freelancers Union has 200,000 members. Horowitz's agitprop-style subway posters have helped transform the public image of freelancers as table-hogging sloths at Think! Coffee into something closer to the Union's mascot, the worker bee. And in December, Horowitz was named to the board of the New York Federal Reserve, one of 12 regional Reserve Banks that make up the Federal Reserve system, the country's central bank. The Fed isn't the sort of place you'd expect to see a Lefty labor activist who just released a glossy self-help book called The Freelancer's Bible. Its board tends to be heavy on—not surprisingly—bankers. Horowitz's colleagues on the board include executives from the Banco Popular de Puerto Rico and Solvay Bank and the co-founder of Silver Lake Partners, "one of the world's largest firms investing in technology and technology-enabled businesses." But as Jack Gutt, a spokesman for the New York Federal Reserve, explains, the Fed chose Horowitz because of her "unique view into an important segment of the economy in the district, the independent workforce."

The appointment doesn't just validate her career, but also the 42-million-strong tribe of freelancers Horowitz has championed since the '90s, before they were even counted by the Department of Labor as part of the workforce. When asked about Horowitz and her place in the labor movement, Randi Weingarten, the all-powerful president of the American Federation of Teachers, says simply, "Look, Sara is the most ingenious thinker of our time."

Horowitz isn't your parents' union leader. She starts hashtags on Twitter, packs her own healthy lunch, and meditates daily. But activism is in her DNA. She grew up in Brooklyn Heights where her mother, the breadwinner of the family, was a unionized teacher; her father worked as a union lawyer. In the '70s, Horowitz's seamstress grandmother lived in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers unionized housing on the Lower East Side. As a kid, Horowitz used to visit her one-bedroom unit to eat vanilla ice cream mashed up with instant coffee and trays of Shake 'n' Bake chicken. The awning on the building read "Hillman Housing."

Sidney Hillman was the labor leader who worked briefly in New York's garment industry and went on to lead its union in massive organized strikes and arbitrations, win unemployment insurance for its members, and found cooperative housing in the city. Although the name didn't mean much to young Horowitz when she was trying on her grandmother's kitten heels and shuffling around the living room, she's now building on Hillman's vision.

Horowitz was working as a labor lawyer in 1995 when she grew frustrated by the lack of economic security for independent workers and founded Working Today, the precursor to the Freelancers Union. She saw her mission not as collective wage bargaining (which would be impossible across so many different industries), but as a way to improve independent workers' healthcare and financial security. By 2008, the union was strong enough that she could launch The Freelancers Insurance Company, a for-profit "social-purpose enterprise" with the union as sole shareholder (profits are plowed back into research and development and lowering costs for members, although there's been some grumbling that this hasn't happened much). The following year, it launched the first 401(k) plan for freelancers; defeated the New York City Unincorporated Business Tax, saving freelancers $3,400 a year; and began deploying its muscle in city elections, endorsing the likes of Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio. In 2010, the company rolled out Health Partners, a provider network designed to give independent workers improved access to mental health care, a concern among isolated wifi jockeys. "You work with coal miners and you learn everything there is about black lung," says Horowitz. "You work with freelancers and you learn about depression."

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