Why aren’t Clinton and Trump talking about freelancers?

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International Workers of the World 1914

Stephane Kasriel points out that despite the large and growing numbers of freelancers in the US Economy, the presidential candidates seem uninterested in talking about them:

Our organizations [Upwork and the Freelancers Union] commissioned a study together, for the third year running, and this year’s Freelancing in America survey shows that 35 percent of the U.S. workforce freelanced in 2016, making freelancers one of the largest segments of any type of worker. Since 2014, our study estimates that 2 million more U.S. workers started freelancing. To put it in context, the population of freelancers is greater than that of Ohio, Florida, and Pennsylvania combined.

And yet despite their numbers, there’s almost no discussion of freelancers’ interests in the political sphere. That is a lost opportunity for both parties. It is also a major oversight of one of the biggest constituencies driving the U.S. workforce and economy.

We believe it’s time for America to take seriously one of its largest sources of entrepreneurial creativity — freelancers — and to start an open, public discussion about this growing workforce.

However, while a sizable minority of the workforce is made up of freelancers, freelancers aren’t organized, and they don’t have much money. So there aren’t a small group of billionaire freelancers pushing for policy changes, and there’s no effective national union of freelancers.

I mean no offense to Sara Horowitz and her efforts at the Freelancers Union, whose efforts to make insurance available to freelancers, and influence on policy has been admirable. But by making membership free, she’s hobbled the organization’s fundraising, and as a result can’t offer throw weight with political parties and pols.

Kasriel points out that politicians should be paying attention, just because of numbers, but the 47 million potential voters are not structured as a single voting block:

their loyalties are still up for grabs: 45 percent support Clinton, 33 percent support Trump, and 21 percent are undecided or voting Libertarian; most say they would consider changing their votes to support a candidate who address their needs. In other words, there are 47 million potential voters which could be won, or lost, by a candidate choosing to interact on issues and ideas that matter to freelancers. In a time of ever-smaller margins of victory in electoral politics, freelancers are a constituency worth engaging. The politicians that learn to speak their language could ride their support to victory.

But absent a real political machine that would get them all in line to vote for candidates espousing freelancer-friendly policies, these folks simply vote for whoever they favor, as private individuals.

The freelancer community fails to find and leverage solidarity, and as a result, we hear zilch about freelancer issues in the debates, and maybe we’ll see nothing undertaken in the next four years about portable benefits, making the social security system more fair, and so on. Luckily, some freelancer concerns line up with the employed worker — like better and lower-cost child care — but other benefits being pushed as worker-friendly — like paid parental leave — exclude freelancers since there is no ‘employer’ that can be compelled to pay for leave.

Perhaps the barrier to solidarity is this: If freelancers think of themselves as small business owners — each with a single employee, themselves — then they don’t act and think like a bloc of workers. And as such they may find more in common with the chamber of commerce than the local electrician’s union or the Teamsters. But that — I believe — is a mistake. They’d be better off — and would have more chance to better their lot — if they simply realized that they are all in it together, and need to adopt the premise of ‘fluidarity’ if they can’t get all the way to solidarity.

As I wrote earlier this year,

Social theorists like Zygmunt Bauman and Frederic Jameson have made the argument that in our era average people are divided against themselves: they cannot find solidarity in the way that labor or civil rights movements of the past have been able to. We lack the sense of shared identity — shared adversity — that makes solidarity possible. This state is an outcome of cultural forces which line up to divide us.

But a movement to reject the status quo and to demand change does not require a comprehensive alternative platform of programs, goals, and initiatives: it does not require agreement on a detailed future, or an institution to create such policies. We need only to share a hatred for the way things are. We do not require solidarity to want to topple the system, we only need fluidarity, the transient and shifting sense of being aligned in opposition to those who want to steal the future.

That would be enough.

Written by

Founder, Work Futures. Editor, GigaOm. My obsession is the ecology of work, and the anthropology of the future.

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