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ILR alumna goes from labor lawyer to freelancers' union/insurance founder

Sara Horowitz under the Brooklyn Bridge

Sara Horowitz, ILR '84, pictured here under the Brooklyn Bridge, is a MacArthur Foundation fellow. In 2011, Forbes named her one of its "Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs" and BusinessWeek put her on its "25 Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs" list. Photo by Jesse Winter Photography.

The workplace, as we knew it, is gone.

Accept that.

Sara Horowitz, ILR '84, as executive director of the 180,000-member Freelancers Union she founded in 1995, helps define the work life of 42 million Americans.

She gets right to the point about the redefined future of work in the wake of the 2008 financial crash.

"You are not just going to be able to go and 'get a job.' There isn't going to be such a thing as the workplace," she says. Gigs, not jobs, will fill out careers, she predicts. By 2020, some economists say, half of America's labor force will be self-employed workers.

The Worker Institute at Cornell, being launched this September in New York City by the ILR School (see this related Cornell Chronicle story), is focusing attention on the needs of independent contractors and other workers through research, education and public discourse. This summer, Horowitz met with Marc Bayard, the institute's executive director, to share her experiences.

"We're not going back. These are the new jobs … we have to level with people about the future. Freelancing is going to be a part of their lives. In the recession, those freelancers who were nimble did pretty fine," and those who weren't agile suffered the most, says Horowitz, a MacArthur Foundation fellow. In 2011, Forbes named her one of its "Top 30 Social Entrepreneurs" and BusinessWeek put her on its "25 Most Promising Social Entrepreneurs" list.

Marc Bayard

Marc Bayard

In 2008, Horowitz launched the Freelancers Insurance Co., which enrolls more than 25,000 individuals and their families. The union and the insurance organization operate out of the same Brooklyn building. Horowitz vividly remembers early on struggling with the union's business model. "This is totally not going to work," she thought.

As unions lost strength in many sectors, though, Horowitz plunged more deeply into the labor movement until the model worked.

Failure and candor are great teachers, "if you can stomach it … always tell yourself the truth, even when it stinks," Horowitz says. "None of us have the obligation to be successful, but we have the obligation to keep trying," especially when it comes to building an economically sustainable society.

"It's got to be about humanity. We are all change agents. You, too, must figure out your place in this … There's always going to be a way for workers to come together," she says.

Imagination and resilience needed

A sustainable economy requires us to be imaginative, resilient and entrepreneurial, like the Knights of Labor, Samuel Gompers, Sidney Hillman, Bayard Rustin and others who led the way for workers, she says.

"Workers are going to need to come together to build their own systems" and, ultimately, a new mentality, says Horowitz, author of "The Freelancer's Bible," which will be published in October.

Many questions remain, for Horowitz and millions of workers. "What's the future? How are we going to build back economic security? What's this next society going to look like? It's dependent on the new workforce coming together," she says. "These workers will be architecting the next safety net."

This fall, a medical practice sponsored by the Freelancers Union is slated to open in Brooklyn. It will serve several thousand people. Next year in Oregon, New York and New Jersey, the union begins enrolling members in its nonprofit health care "CO-OPs" -- Consumer Operated and Oriented Plans. Expected by the union to serve up to 200,000 people, the insurance plans are funded by $340 million in loans from the Affordable Care Act.

Sara Horowitz in ILR's Manhattan office

Sara Horowitz in the ILR School's Manhattan office. Photo by Don Bazley.

Early labor action experience

At Cornell, Horowitz was captivated by such ILR professors as Nick Salvatore and Clete Daniel. She led the Cornell Organization for Labor Action. The experience "taught me how to run a meeting and an organization," she says.

After college, she worked as a union organizer and labor lawyer. Then, a moment in 1994 in a Manhattan hospital courtyard crystallized Horowitz's shift from labor lawyer to union founder.

The older, African-American sous chefs she represented were replaced when their employer upgraded a section of the facility to luxurious accommodations and dining options, Horowitz recalls. "I was feeling their pain about their life's work and that they weren't wanted in this kitchen. There was something palpable about the message they were getting."

That moment helped catapult her into an idea. The Freelancers Union formed a year later.

"I really, profoundly believe in unions. I don't think there's a democracy that exists without them. Everyone said labor was dead in the 1920s and look what happened. It came back through industrial unions in the '30s and '40s," she says.

"It's one long movement, and we all play a role," including those embarking on their careers, she adds.

Advice for new graduates

What are Horowitz's thoughts for students and new graduates?

"This is the time to dream and try and explore, not just take that job that 'pays,'" she says. "Really try to do something out there. Go organize some workers somewhere. Go live internationally. Don't just think all the answers are in that first sensible job. … Realize it's your responsibility to go learn. It is far more fulfilling than getting everything handed to you.

"Don't let yourself off the hook … you're young. Use that time. Go, and be bold. Don't just settle. Go for being great."

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