Sept. 9, 2008

New kinds of workers need new kinds of unions, union founder stresses

With more people than ever working independently and changing jobs often, new kinds of unions are needed, said Sara Horowitz, ILR '84, founder of Working Today, a union that offers social safety nets for flexible workers.

"Now ... we have a new form of work where people are going from job to job and project to project. Why on earth would we imagine that we wouldn't have a new kind of union that would be responsive to the new ways that people are working?" Horowitz asked, Sept. 8, delivering the Iscol Family Program lecture, "New Unionism: Delivering the Promise of a Fair Economy," to more than 200 people in Call Auditorium. In attendance were Jill and Ken Iscol, ILR '60, founders of the Iscol Family Program for Leadership Development in Public Service in the College of Human Ecology.

Today's students have grown up at a time when less than 8 percent of American workers were unionized, Horowitz said. But labor movements have deep historical and cultural roots in this country, she said, emphasizing the importance of union evolution with changing economies and jobs.

Traditional long-term employers had a "safety net connected to the job," she said, with health insurance, pensions, unemployment insurance, on-the-job training and the right to unionize. But the days of working for a single employer for many years are over, she noted, and about one-third of the workforce is independent.

"Now, as people are going from project to project and job to job, they can't access those protections," she said. "So what do we see now? We see about 46 million Americans going without health insurance."

She cited unequal income distribution as another strong argument for a new unionism that includes independent workers.

To develop a new kind of union, today's workers need to collaborate and take an entrepreneurial approach and develop a strong business model. "People need to have power in markets and power in politics," Horowitz said.

Through Working Today, for example, she developed the Freelancers Union -- the fourth largest union in New York state with about 85,000 members nationwide. With a gross revenue of about $70 million, the union currently provides disability, health insurance and life insurance services and soon hopes to offer retirement services.

In describing the kinds of changes the Freelancers Union has enacted and plans to develop, Horowitz elaborated on the entrepreneurial spirit. Entrepreneurs, she said, are bold, revel in serendipity and are always reaching for the opportunities before them. Even in the face of adversity, skepticism and open criticism, Horowitz stressed that entrepreneurs stand by their convictions and take action.

She concluded her lecture with Langston Hughes' poem "The Dream Keeper."

"As you're a student here, thinking about what your professional career is going to be, it may feel like 'why should I care about dreaming?' But really, that's the thing that is going to be the steadying course in anybody's life, to focus on the things that you believe in, the things that give you passion," she said.

Laura Janka '09 is a writer intern with the Cornell Chronicle.