Jan 9, 2020

DealBook: To Guide the Labor Movement’s Future, She Looks to Its Past

8-10 minutos - Source: NYT

As a student of the labor movement, Sara Horowitz takes the long view.
Her grandfather was involved in one of the most prominent garment workers’ unions during its heyday. Her father was a labor lawyer. And growing up, she saw firsthand how unions could help workers: Her grandmother lived in union housing in New York City.
Ms. Horowitz became an organizer for a time, but went on to found the Freelancers Union, an organization that advocates on behalf of independent workers. She served on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, and was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship in 1999.
With organized labor having lost ground in recent decades and the rise of the gig economy, Ms. Horowitz still believes workers of any classification are more powerful when they organize. Today, she is focused on improving benefits for independent contractors. She started the Freelancers Insurance Company in 2008 and more recently founded Trupo, an organization that bundles benefit packages.
This interview, which was condensed and edited for clarity, was conducted at Trupo’s offices in Brooklyn.

What was your childhood like?
I grew up in a rent-stabilized apartment that’s now a luxury building in Brooklyn Heights. We had a view of the harbor. Things that used to be rent stabilized now are going for $20,000 a month. That’s not funny.
What did your parents do?
He was an antitrust and labor lawyer who worked for himself. I guess you could say he was a freelancer. Our family was rich from 1968 to 1969 because my father won a really big lawsuit against Pan American airlines. And my grandfather was vice president of the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union. His job was, when the companies would move out of New York City to avoid unionization, he would go there, to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, to organize those jobs.
Did you grow up with an awareness of labor and trade and unions?
Oh, yeah. I learned a lot about the 1920s labor movement, which was formative for me. It was the heyday of unions, when they were at their most entrepreneurial, forming banks and insurance companies. My grandmother lived in union housing on the Lower East Side, and we’d go visit her. We were very steeped in that tradition, and I always think it gave me a perspective that wasn’t quite the one I was supposed to have at my age.
Did you think you wanted to stay in the family business, as it were, and be involved with labor when you grew up?
Yeah. When I was in 11th grade, the Youngstown steelworkers were on strike. My history teacher said, “Why don’t you organize a letter-writing campaign?”
I remember doing that, and that was like, “Yeah, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.” Then when I was 18, I got a job at the Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union, which I got strictly from nepotism, and I never looked back.
Your career as an organizer didn’t last all that long, though.
In the middle of all that, I went and lived on a kibbutz in Israel. I really got to see what a socialist living environment was like. It turned out to be really helpful, because when you build something like the Freelancers Union, you really have to be thinking about the different structures and patterns of work. Workers’ organizations are as old as the Bible.

How are unions for today’s jobs going to differ from unions in the past?
In many ways, we’re working in similar ways to the ways a lot of workers worked before the Civil War, because they tended to be solo entrepreneurs and craft workers. It wasn’t until the Industrial Revolution that we broke them up into little pieces of a craft.
Today, freelancers are so transient. You can’t always locate them with a particular employer. So we had to really figure out how people could come together who are in so many different places. While technology is transforming work, it’s also enabling people to put organizations together in a way they couldn’t before. There’s no way an entity like the Freelancers Union could have existed without the internet.
So where did the idea for the Freelancers Union come from?
I went to the Kennedy School to take an intellectual sabbatical. That year really helped me put the pieces together to say, “If there really is going to be a new form of unionism, what is it going to be?” I came out of that year with the germ of the idea of the Freelancers Union, which took many years of different models and testing to actually become a viable, independent union for freelancers.
One of the first things we have to unwind is this idea that the gig economy is just about low-wage workers, because it’s just broader. Freelancers range from very low-paid workers to very skilled and highly paid workers. They’re all workers.
It seems like these days inequality is making it harder for the labor movement to succeed.
The story of the labor movement is the story of low-wage and higher-wage workers uniting together. I think that inadvertently, the progressive left has made the mistake of internalizing Reagan and thinking that the labor movement is only made up of low-wage workers.
We have to come together as low-wage workers and higher-skilled workers to talk about the things we need, from training to benefits, to changing the tax code, to really giving power to a new set of labor institutions, like Roosevelt did.
In the 1920s, everyone said labor was dead, and, boy, in the 1930s did they learn that was not true. Things are so cyclical. Just because they don’t happen in your lifetime doesn’t mean that they’re not going to happen.
Why did you start Trupo?
I started building out different kinds of insurance programs through the Freelancers Union, but it was all under the nonprofit. It became clear that wasn’t scalable capital. So now we are starting to really lay the train tracks, like they did in the 1880s, to start to build out this infrastructure and to make it scalable and to recognize that no worker ever knew how to put together their benefits package. There’s too much choice. People need to just answer a bunch of questions and get told what’s helpful.
What was your time on the New York Fed like?
I came away with such a deep and abiding respect for the Fed. I think that people can have their criticisms, as they should, but I’m right there with Alexander Hamilton. I want a central bank. I don’t want to be dependent on kings and queens and super-wealthy people.
But we just don’t have an imagination for really great things that the Fed can do. Look at quantitative easing. That money all became profitable over eight years later, and it all went right back up to the Treasury. It was so much money that we could’ve actually solved something with. We could’ve had light rail in America. We could’ve cured the opioid epidemic. But instead, it just went right into the Treasury, without the same strategic focus.
If you had more people from the cooperative sector and the labor movement, and there was an ability to have that conversation, boy, would we have been able to do something that we’d be still talking about. We shouldn’t shy away from engaging in these institutions. They’re our institutions.
Given the state of labor, do you get pessimistic?
One thing that is not often said in my demographic is “I totally believe in God.” I believe in the divine. I went to Quaker schools, and I’m a complete and total Jew who has meditated for 13 years and is influenced by Buddhism, and I just believe in love. I have this eternal faith that good people are going to keep struggling. There’s this beautiful phrase, which is something to the effect of “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.”
The baton’s passed to you, you run as fast as you can, then you pass it to the next one. Whatever is difficult in our world, we have the obligation to try really hard.

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