#4: Can freelance workers unite?

Original article

SUPHİ NEJAT AĞIRNASLI

(Translated from Turkish by Uğur Engin Deniz, Yetkin Yılmaz and Kerem Kılıç)

The labor markets around the world are continually reshaped upon flexible and precarious working conditions. A good portion of the young workers, particularly those  in the service sector, are forced to work under ad-hoc piece-by-piece subcontracts, whereas companies use “outsourcing” to acquire various goods and services from developing countries without fully institutionalised employment.

As the traditional unions are void of the means to organise “freelance workers”, people working under these conditions lack any kind of social security, and with the lack of regularity, they have to rely on personal connections for their work.

At a time when subcontractor companies and private employment agencies are spreading globally, there may be an opportunity to create a different kind of workers’ organisation.

The developments in information technologies have diversified the means of production and the work activities. It “democratised” the relation between the means of production and the worker, moving it towards an individual relation (in which, individual is the fictional presumption of democracy), rather than the classical relation where a large group of labor work together in a factory.

As capitalism adopted a flexible accumulation model and as companies started to outsource to circumvent the responsibilities imposed by permanent employment, this trend became widespread, especially in service and service-like sectors.

State tax policies pushed this market to a legally “grey” area. It’s important not to reduce this to “neoliberalism’s wild waves of attacks”. Because, the new flexible work models can also be read as a resistance to work hours and power dynamics in workplaces.

That is to say, as Negri and Hardt do, it’s reasonable to interpret the setup deployed by the capital as not only as a new accumulation model, but as a change in the power dynamics imposed by the resistance that has been taking place since 68.As a result, maybe a graphic designer working at home is not worlds apart from a street vendor of roasted chestnuts.

This is especially true in countries like Turkey – where the capitalist relations are constantly interrupted by holocausts, destruction, taxes and political/economical crisis, hence the establishment’s crisis to facilitate order. Observing that processes like “work discipline” and “dispossession of portions of the population to create proletariat” meet certain inertia and resistance, we can gain a new perspective.

Although at first the problem seems not confined to these, after a second glance it can all be seen as “dispossession”.

Separately, it can be thought that small land ownership and small scale production in Turkey may have brought some historical projections/habits along with it. Proletarianisation gives rise to new means of production via the resistance against it. For example, one can participate in capitalist production if not more freely, more remotely (as a social relation small ownership or other means).

Here the problem is the relation of individuals to their work as a “happening in the world at large” or as a tool to have a slice of the riches and climbing the steps.

Even though these work practises change from one industry to another, in actuality each is a craft of social relations and the established hiring practices. Thus, even if the workers’ job and their independency may not resemble a craftsmanship, it looks like a weaving of connections when it comes to chasing jobs.

Have we looked for too long with rose-colored glasses? In capitalism “independence” and “remoteness” can be confused easily, because both are decorated with associations to “sovereignty” and “self”. People that have worked in small subcontracting companies or those that have set up theirs (as they become the boss for others as their own), home offices, freelance work practices have created an opportunity for more individual freedom at work, but also gave birth to a new wave of problems in terms of job continuity and getting proper payments and social security.

Then again these work practices aren’t equal in terms of earnings potential. There is a difference of perception between a 3D texture designer that demands 10.000 TL for a job, a translator that is paid 2.000 TL for a 300 page translation done in 45 days and a web designer that gets 1.000-5.000 per piece.

But, we can pose this question especially in terms of “miserables” of this ordeal. We don’t warm up to working in companies or really can’t find a job there. It’s really swell to be masters of our own time and reduce the domination on us to a minimum. But the return and continuity of these jobs is difficult, and they deprive us of the opportunity to have communal relations and basic social security.

Well then, if we read freelancing/flexible job practices as a better alternative to standard capitalist organizations, is it possible to come up with a strong opposition against them? Can we find a common ground in which we try to take away from the capital as individuals? Let’s have a dream: dream of a union, that is not a union; dream of a cooperative/collective that’s not only economical; it’s a company outside, but it’s our mutual richness inside, that’s not a company. How? At first we can set up a zone like institutions similar to TMMOB does, which is not only a mailing group for “miserables” which is used to pass along/share jobs and shopping/education. More than that maybe it’s possible to set up companies/collectives that are organised more flexibly inside, yet provide a professional outlook from outside and inner dynamics can be arranged as a cooperative.

These anti-capitalist cooperatives/collectives can organise under a confederation. This organisation can be organized based on jobs (graphics, software, cleaner, translator etc.) or under the label of subcontractor/employer or project agencies and can act as cooperatives which contracts with institutions or can acquire jobs as collectives. Such a collective structure may be able to collect a pool of companies to work with in the market, thus may be able to provide continuous work -at the very least may be advantageous to individuals. All the active workers can be included in SGK (health insurance) by a proxy company and the profits can be divided (after syndical cuts are made) equally on project basis.

Unfortunately after the seventies unions and cooperatives made many bureaucrats rich. Jet Fadıl and Titan or unproduced first Turkish car and many unbuilt constructions aren’t that far away. But congregations and cooperative organisations shows us that there is an inclination for “collective fundings” have existed, maybe reorganising the lost trust under a more communist base and another context is possible.

Continuing the dream: Confederation can work centrally on weaving anti-capitalist and sharing practices, is responsible preparing a political/social front, meanwhile the constituents of the confederation work as cooperatives as “subcontractor”, “service provider” or agencies.

While freelance workers have trouble determining their fees, these cooperatives with collective decision processes have a chance to determine the fee by “congregate negotiations”

There can be  discount negotiations like Memur-Sen (civil servants union) arranged sometime ago. From time to time there may be practises developed for woman such as kindergartens or other practises for the disabled.

While the confederation adds a political front to the debate on current work conditions, the accompanying cooperatives can maintain their members livelihood, job continuity and social assurances and can make small steps towards collective lives. During this process the members can arrange special professional education studies and workshops to develop themselves. Furthermore, these collective practices can give rise to a new political/social approach to give the confederation an anti-capitalist foundation and further it from charity work. Against congregations and NGOs’ money and service distribution practices, communism rooted in weaving collective lives can provide a little association.

The suggestion here is not Owenism, not even telling “thus capitalism can be destroyed”, only the dream of developing a collective front and spreading a more collective lifestyle like unions. Thus the problem is not as assertive as “crimson political bases”, but why shouldn’t it develop towards that? There are a few places that’s suitable to debate this topic: first ÇEVBİR and Alternative IT Specialists Association and teachers that still haven’t been assigned can be the parties for such a discussion. The dream, in short, is: a first step that will be anti-capitalist both in its political rhetoric and in practice, develops partisanship by training structures, politicises its members, adopting a communist view and language, but also puts this into practice, is aware that the world is more than this organisation, a step that organises this emphasis too while pushing the limits of humbleness…

What exists?

There is the Freelancer’s Union in United states as a “tame” but interesting experience. They have an agreement with private health insurance firms to provide freelancer a “cheaper” insurance and legal consultancy [1]. But more than that there is IWW with a long and more militant history [2]. IWW and as it’s member call it Wobblies doesn’t organise freelancer or at least they are not “specialised” for this purpose. But they have an organisation that is specific to the end of 19th century socialist movement and anarchist inclinations with an exact anti-capitalist attitude and as flexible/anti-authoritarian. It’s main property is being against sectoral differences and having the slogan “One Unified union” and sees different sectors or even cities/neighborhood organisations as a part of a confederation.

The mythical CNT and as a political organisation FAI while left behind are also experiences to put under scope in terms of “cooperation” and as organisations that voids “sectoral” differences.

In Turkey freelancers have websites that works for money abroad (who knows how well they operate) [3]

In brief I hope that this article is read by especially labour groups, leftist and “poor” freelancers and this discussion won’t be left on paper.

[1] http://www.freelancersunion.org/

[2] http://www.iww.org

[3] For example http://www.freelancecalisanlar.com/index.htm orhttp://www.projekurdu.com/index.php?fuseaction=home.employer or http://uzmankirala.com/