Q&A: How to Build a Freelance Rights Movement
31 July 2013 - Impact Hub

Mad about low rates, unliveable contracts, and clients who don’t pay on time? Don’t just grumble, get active.
For the third and final instalment of our Freelancers Unite series, Hub Islington is getting political on August 14, inviting you to join freelance rights pioneer Joel Dullroy of VGSD Berlin. In a must-attend event for anyone interested in activism, social movements or the future of work, Joel will share his findings on the emergence of the freelancers rights movement, and propose tactics for how the movement might grow, combining ideas from recent social upheavals, clever start-up business growth strategies, and the coworking scene. You can register for your free ticket here.
We caught up with Joel for a chat about issues facing freelancers, how to apply a collectivist ethos to an entrepreneurial sector, and where he thinks the movement will go next.
How did you get involved with the freelance rights movement?
Last year German freelancers banded together to fight against a proposed law that would have forced us to pay around 400 EUR a month in compulsory retirement taxes. I was involved in promoting that campaign, which turned out to be successful; the German government dropped the plan. Afterwards, a group of some of the active participants got together and decided to form a permanent organisation to ensure that freelancers were prepared for the next inevitable challenge.
That group is called the Verband der Gründer und Selbständigen Deutschland, or the association of founders and freelancers Germany. I’m the international relations representative of the VGSD, communicating with similar groups in other countries. Prior to that, I had been involved in the coworking community as a writer and business founder. Through this contact with the coworking world, I came to understand the importance of creating a movement for freelancers.
What are the most important issues facing freelancers right now?
Freelancers everywhere face a continual erosion of workplace protections and rights that were created through sweat and struggle since the industrial revolution. Since the 1980s these protections have been seriously attacked by governments worldwide, acting in the interest of companies which want to increase profits by reducing costs – mostly, the costs associated with employing people fairly.
Freelancers everywhere face the challenge of having a high level of insecurity, no benefits such as paid holidays or sick leave, and little protection when things go wrong. In many countries they must also pay entirely for their own health insurance and retirement costs, which are considerable. At the same time, the average rates charged by freelancers are being squeezed downward as more and more people are pushed into the freelancing grey zone.
These challenges require a collective response.
Freelancing is by definition such an independent way of working. What are the challenges of applying a collectivist ethos to an inherently entrepreneurial sector?
I think it is a false notion to think that freelancers are entirely selfish hyper-individuals. Most freelancers I talk to are surprised and excited to hear that there is a freelancers’ movement, and are eager to join. It is true that we’ve been educated to believe we are atomized individuals who must rely on ourselves alone, but this is simply ideology, and it can be proven false through experience. We all participate in communal units in daily life – our extended families, our shared apartments, our voluntary creative or charitable projects. The challenge then is to expand this experience of collective cooperation into our work activities.
The biggest challenge is for the freelancers’ movement to make itself accessible and joinable. People want to get involved, and not just by signing up to a website. They want to take action. The different organisations involved in the freelancers’ movement need to make it easy for the freelance community to undertake the small tasks required to reach our goals.
Are there any organisations doing particularly good work that freelancers interested in getting political should check out?
There are official politically-motivated freelancers’ organisations in six European countries and in the United States. There are also many unofficial campaigns and spontaneous actions, most of which exist online and are related to campaigning against unpaid internships.
Among the most successful organisations is the Freelancers Union in the US, which has done a great job of creatively engaging the freelance community, and is building its own supporting structures such as health care.
Some organisations have a more corporate style that looks more like a business lobby group or chamber of commerce than a radical political movement. That’s a reflection of the period in which they began (some are over a decade old), as well as the approach they prefer to take – high-level negotiation with government ministers and corporations.
I think a mix of both activist and professional campaigning is necessary. We need to engage the grassroots freelancers and excite them with the promise of slightly revolutionary activity. And we need to sit down with power holders and talk in measured terms about the importance of our growing demographic.
Where would you like to see the freelance rights movement go next?
The freelancers’ movement is likely to develop into an interconnected network of many different groups and campaigns, all with their own approach and demands, but all alike in their desire to bring freelancers together. It will be akin to the Occupy movement, an umbrella under which different groups and actions can spring up. There won’t be a single organisation or a leader, but a web of disparate actors, each gaining their own strengths and characters as they build their communities.
The next phase involves telling the freelancers of the world that a movement is developing to support them, and enabling them to take part.
It is a really exciting phase. The fun and struggle is all ahead of us. We can reshape the way we work and the societies that we exist within, utilising our collective strength and creativity. Now we just have to get on with the job of making it happen.
Freelancers Unite: How to Build a Freelance Rights Movement featuring Joel Dullroy will be at Hub Islington on Wednesday 14 August from 6pm through 8pm. 5 Torrens Street, London EC1V1NQ. Click here to reserve your free ticket.