Freelance is the New Unionization

Photo by Sarah Lachise on Unsplash

My grandpa was a union man.

He would tell outrageous stories about his life growing up in San Francisco during the Great Depression, many of which were about his father whose life seemed to revolve around two things: his Scottish heritage and his union membership.

“The greatest day of my dad’s life,” my grandpa once told me, “was when all the unions went to strike. The whole city shut down!”

I’m writing this on Labor Day 2021, and my grandpa’s stories come to mind again. Unions rose up in the 19th century in response to the working conditions during the Industrial Revolution (or so claims Wikipedia). We have plenty of records of the horrible labor practices back then, with long hours, dangerous situations, no securities, and low pay.

I recently helped my daughter with an assignment epitomizing that time, revolving around an early 1900s mining town where the mine went up in flames and many employees lost their lives.

The company, of course, tried to brush it all under the rug.

Many of the protections that unions fought for turned into standard labor laws in the US, guaranteeing certain protections nationwide rather than only to those belonging to the right union.

Because of that and many other reasons I’m not trying to debate here, union membership has plummeted. Nearly a third of all employees were in unions back in the 50’s. Now, we’re down to 10.8%.

We’re in the middle of another change in labor in the US. It’s nothing like the Industrial Revolution, but there’s still certainly a lot of pain and confusion in the working world.

Employees are not fighting for safety and security this time around. For most of those that are fighting, the most dangerous thing they have to worry about in the work day is their commute to and from the office or what diseases they might get from that coworker who insists he doesn’t need to wash his hand (“I don’t know about you, but I don’t pee on them!” -Actual response I got once).

Instead, employees are fighting for meaning. They’re fighting for the flexibility to have interesting experiences now rather than waiting until they’re 65+ and able to retire. They’re fighting to both work and be there for their kids and not feel like a failure at both.

So, because of that, and thanks to the internet making this kind of thing possible, more people are testing out freelancing and participating in the gig economy.

Unionization was the chosen answer in the early 1900s. Freelance and Gig work seems to be the chosen answer in the early 2000s.

Unfortunately, freelance work can be hard and the gig economy isn’t some magic bullet. Many people will make it work, but many people struggle.

Also, those who set off on their own are unlikely to have that *poof* moment from freelance work where their life now has meaning. Sorry. But maybe doing freelance work will help you get there.

The problem, though, is that our world has been set up around a 1950’s economy. Benefits are given through your employer. Protections are set up around your employer.

Which is fine if you have the same employer for your entire life. We’ve been treading away from that for years. Freelance is just a final jump in that same direction.

And so far, the most serious effort to protect freelancers is to…force them to be employees under AB5.

Which might be helpful in a certain narrow set of circumstances, but TOTALLY misses the point for why so many are choosing the freelance option.

What’s the solution to losing out on these protections? I don’t know. These are just my random ravings on a Labor Day afternoon, thinking about my Grandpa and what that day meant for him.

Think I’m right? Think I’m way off? I’d love to hear your take on it.




Accountant, Professor, Entrepreneur. Loving my household of struggles (seizures, anxiety, dysautonomia, autism, dysgraphia) while training a poodle service dog

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Tim Gordon

Tim Gordon

Accountant, Professor, Entrepreneur. Loving my household of struggles (seizures, anxiety, dysautonomia, autism, dysgraphia) while training a poodle service dog

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