I have long said that, if we’re going to talk about “The Future of Work”, I want to talk about “The Future of Workers”.
This month Sensei Sara Horowitz asks, “Is the future of work stuck in the past?”  As a founder of the Freelancers Union, she has long been involved with futurist punditry on this topic for many years, and she expresses dissatisfaction with discussions that “focus on the impact on businesses rather than individual workers”.
The perspectives (let alone the interests) of actual workers are absent.
“In fact, “The Future of Work” takeaways are often radically disconnected from the needs of American workers.”
Eternal optimist Horowitz is happy to note that workers mostly don’t know and don’t care about these pontifications. She sees workers “charting their own course, building that new workplace in real time and creating the social organizations they need”.
Horowitz has her own agenda, of course. As any good social scientist (such as me) or union organizer (such as SH) will tell you, “Workers are social creatures” (all people are social creatures), so it is a mistake to talk about gig workers as if they are isolated units, one person companies. For Horowitz, the implication is that it is important to organizing workers for economic and political power, and, these days, she is busy creating worker owned insurance and other social safety nets.
““Future of Work” enthusiasts should focus their attention and energy on the institutions that organize workers”
Of course, labor unions are the (lost) past for most workers, so this is hardly a ground breaking prescription. And I’m not as optimistic about the feasibility of organizing workers in the way SH talks about. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud to be a member of the FU, I just don’t think it is likely to gain enough power to matter.
(However, coming up with decent insurance and other benefits will be a huge plus for ordinary workers. So, you go girl!, on that front.)
I am considerably more optimistic about other kinds of worker driven “organizing”, especially coworking spaces. Independent workers may not be able to wield a lot of political or economic power, but we definitely can create and control our own work places, and our own communities of co-workers. This is a huge win for workers, indeed, potentially life saving.
But IMO, the secret to success for a coworking community is local, in person interaction, which is not a large-scale thing. Everybody can belong to a coworking community, but it will be a zillion small, independent groups, not one large group. So, coworking is very important and beneficial, but it is not really an “institution that organizes workers” in the way SH is thinking.
Obviously, we can expect both coworking and the FU to continue in the future, both serving the needs of future workers. These two movements are different ways to address the needs of individual workers, and both are powerful because they are social.
- Sara Horowitz, Is the future of work stuck in the past?, in Freelancers Union Blog, February 6, 2020. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2020/02/06/is-the-future-of-work-stuck-in-the-past/