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


“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.”

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.”

But it’s the newly opened Freelancers Medical Center in downtown Brooklyn, created in partnership with Collective Primary Care, that is the most tangible symbol of the union’s importance—and how much more powerful it could become.

Offering acupuncture, meditation, and yoga alongside free doctor visits, the center doesn’t look like much from the outside. It sits on a particularly noisy stretch of Jay Street, just next door to a wig shop selling black and blond lace-fronts made from human hair. But inside, it’s tricked out with Scandinavian-style furniture in a Feng Shui–observant layout, with shiny plants in the appropriate corners. It’s built for the modern, anxious, depression-prone freelancer; for the New Yorker who likes her medical care personalized, her textiles modern, and her Qi channels unobstructed.

It’s almost silent in the room reserved for classes until there’s a sudden cry from the instructor: “Oh my God, shoes in the yoga studio? You guys!” But even after a breach of etiquette, this place is a sanctuary compared to the city’s typically grotty, soul-crushing waiting rooms. “It’s this amazing thing,” says Horowitz, padding through the airy space. “But what’s really amazing is that it never could have happened if people didn’t come together.” She means it quite literally: When the center opened, the team was hoping to recruit 3,000 people over the course of 18 months; they got 2,000 in less than four weeks. Union members don’t pay annual dues—they pay for the insurance tier of their choice (starting at $225 a month for an individual “value” plan with a $10,000 deductible and rising to $1,600 a month for a family with a $1,500 deductible). Members can see primary-care doctors here without a co-pay and without extra fees for routine blood work.

“I can’t ever remember having insurance I was happy with,” Pam Benson, a freelance writer who is a fan of the medical director Dr. Neil Patel and the nurse practitioners, and also of the ur-Brooklyn extras like acupuncture. “But so far, so good.” She’s been a Freelancers Union member since it was founded.

Another patient approaches Horowitz in the lobby, gushing about how much he loves the place, how good it feels to be treated “like a human being” at a doctor’s office. But like everyone else in New York, this guy’s worried that if too many people learn about the thing he loves, it’ll be ruined. He wants to keep the center a secret. Horowitz listens, nods gently, and later explains that the beauty of a self-sustaining model is that if it’s successful, you can just build another one. “This isn’t set up to be, like, some exclusive little gym,” she says. It’s a model that scales, and Horowitz is already looking at three other cities where she plans to open similar centers over the next two years.

By tapping into the cooperative spirit of what Horowitz calls “new mutualism”—the kind of hippie-industrial values driving big businesses like Kickstarter and Etsy—Freelancers Union has emerged as something the rest of the country can learn from. Now the union is helping other groups’ projects take off. Last year, it sponsored independent nonprofits in New York, New Jersey, and Oregon and won them federal loans totaling $340 million. Those co-op plans will start their enrollment this fall, with benefits kicking in by January 2014. “You shouldn’t have to be a do-gooder to understand this,” says Horowitz. “This should just be rational.”

When Horowitz was in fifth grade, civil-rights leader Bayard Rustin came and spoke to her class at the Brooklyn Friends school. She doesn’t remember much about what he said that day, but Rustin’s portrait hangs in her Dumbo office, next to Hillman’s and Eleanor Roosevelt’s, and alongside paintings by Horowitz’s daughter. The workspace looks more like a well-funded tech startup than an insurance company, with a high ceiling and an open floor plan, that makes for an unusually warm and buzzy environment. Brainy German board games clutter the lounge and employees gather in small groups around the room. Wherever the eye falls there’s some sort of meeting or brainstorming session going on, conjuring the company’s beehive-themed ad campaigns.

On a recent afternoon, the team was working on solutions for affordable talk therapy, and studying micro-finance models to help freelancers save—and grow—their money. “Traditionally, the financial-services industry doesn’t want to do business with this group, because it’s just not enough money for them,” says Horowitz. “But there’s so much more power as a group than as individuals. We can figure out a more sophisticated way for freelancers to use their money.”

Freelancers are constantly falling into debt early in their careers, loading up their credit cards to get by between projects or as they wait for checks from deadbeat clients. Horowitz thinks every worker should be able to squirrel away at least $5,000 for emergencies—the kind of relentless practicality that she’s built her career on. But The Freelancer’s Bible, blurbed by Tina Brown, goes beyond career-building advice on the finer points of networking and pitching and heads into squishier Oprah territory about being satisfied and fulfilled as a human being, finding communities, and forming brain trusts. Since its release in October, the book has sold over 3,000 copies.

“OK, this is my favorite story right now,” says Horowitz. “There’s this guy in rural Italy, obsessed with math, right?” She’s talking about a book by Murray D. Lincoln, a founder of Nationwide Insurance and a champion of farm cooperatives (the kind of light reading she picks up for fun). “Then one day he shows a famous mathematician what he’s been working on all this time. The mathematician’s like, ‘Oh. Yeah. You invented calculus.'”

Someone smart had figured it out before him. The models were already there.

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