My favorite old union song has always been “Solidarity Forever.” It never fails to inspire and remind me of the power that working people have when they come together to rewrite the rules of our broken economy. This lyric, from Ralph Chaplin’s original, I find particularly moving:
All the world that’s owned by idle drones is ours and ours alone
We have laid the wide foundations, built it skyward stone by stone
It is ours, not to slave in, but to master and to own
While the union makes us strong
We writers can often be solitary creatures, but as NWU members we recognize that we gain power from unity. After all, as the song says, “what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?” We use our power to shape laws and battle against publishers, publications, and work-for-hire clients who would steal our labor and swindle us out of our rights. But can we build a better publisher? Can we build a better online freelancing platform? Can working writers come together to build, govern, and own the very companies we rely on for work and make them serve our needs?
I think we can, and I’m proud to be a part of a new project trying to do just that. Tribe Works is a six-month-old worker-owned staffing agency for tech and creative workers all over the country. I recently came onboard as their marketing and communications manager.
While many staffing agencies rob their workers blind by billing clients 50 to 60 percent more than what the worker actually gets paid, we have a completely transparent pricing method that reserves only 25 percent to pay the business expenses of the cooperative. Any surplus revenue goes right back to the workers in the form of a patronage dividend. On top of that, as equal owners, we all have an equal voice and an equal vote in business decisions.
Tribe’s members get all the flexibility of freelancing while sharing the burdens of running the business side of things. Our online platform helps our members and clients connect, negotiate, and manage things like timesheets. Where most companies use technology to cut jobs and drive down wages, we use technology to benefit the shared prosperity of our worker-owners.
The arrangement works well for business and technical writers who work for a client for a few months or longer, but similar co-ops can be designed to offer a worker-owned alternative to sites like UpWork that offer short-term, project-based work. Book authors could be served well by the same marketing cooperative structures used by farmers to package, distribute, and market their products. It’s an area ripe with possibility, and even Tribe is still finding its footing.
But even if every publisher, publication, and platform we use to sell our labor suddenly converted into a worker cooperative, there would still be a need for unions. On a practical level, the union can connect workers to training, healthcare, retirement, and other benefits. It can be a watchdog to ensure the co-op doesn’t drift from the mission of providing good, family-wage jobs in a democratic workplace that is just, inclusive, and safe. Most importantly, our union is a platform for acting in solidarity with other working people, a platform we use fighting for the rights and dignity of all workers.
Unions are already starting to experiment in building and supporting worker co-ops. The United Steelworkers, in collaboration with Spanish cooperative Mondragon, have been working for years to build a model for unionized worker co-ops and an an economic ecosystem in Cincinnati that could help these businesses thrive. The worker-owners of Cooperative Home Care Associates voted to join New York’s SEIU Local 1199 in the early 2000s. There are worker co-ops unionized with the UFCW, CWA, IBEW, UEW, and even our own UAW.
Should we add the NWU to that alphabet soup? What would that look like? How would it work? It just might be our chance to “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong.”