John D. and Catherine MacArthur Foundation
we’re trying to do is create the new institutions that are going
to support a new workforce," she says, "and to start a broader
conversation about how this new economy will work."
Horowitz, '89, wins a ‘genius award' for her pioneering efforts
to give independent workers a voice
freelance sound engineer-we'll call him Keith-was strolling in
lower Manhattan one morning when he suddenly fell to his knees,
gasping for air. Hours later, in a hospital emergency room, he
learned that his left lung had collapsed; it would be another
few weeks before he could walk down the street again, let alone
work. Keith has never had a serious illness, no savings and, like
many young people embarking on their careers, no insurance. His
hospital bill came to nearly $20,000.
Horowitz, J.D. '89, didn't blink an eye when she heard this story.
She's heard stories like this before. But it's not that she doesn't
care: In fact, she cares so much about America's freelancers that
she has turned her concern into a full-time crusade. Last year
she won a so-called genius award from the John D. and Catherine
T. MacArthur Foundation for her efforts.
Horowitz, who also holds a B.S. from Cornell
University and an M.P.A. from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy
School of Government, is the executive director of Working Today,
a nonprofit organization she founded in 1995 to promote the interests
of independent workers like Keith. About 30 percent of the American
workforce now consists of freelancers, temps, independent contractors
and others whose employment arrangements are flexible. The mission
of Working Today is to give these workers a voice.
To start, Horowitz has built up a membership
of 95,000 people, some of whom belong to Working Today affiliates
like the Graphic Artists Guild, and others who joined through
their employers. Along with getting access to group-rate health
insurance and free legal and financial advice, Working Today members
are part of a burgeoning consumers union. Finally, America's temps
have a chance to make themselves heard.
An articulate, no-nonsense woman in her
mid-30s, Horowitz was on overdrive when we met at Working Today's
offices in Manhattan one cold January afternoon. Her maternity
leave was just four days away, and several projects were clamoring
for her attention. We sat at a table in a large, sparsely furnished
space that serves as reception, lunchroom and conference room
for the seven-person staff. Moving from one meeting to the next
with just a glass of water as a break, Horowitz spoke calmly yet
forcefully about her organization's mission in a changing economy.
"What we're trying to do is create
the new institutions that are going to support a new workforce,"
she says, "and to start a broader conversation about how
this new economy will work."
The fact is that millions of people need
to work independently, whether they have a choice in the matter
or not. But many have had to sacrifice insurance and other traditional
benefits in exchange for a flexible schedule.
"That's the irony right now: You
can have all the flexibility you want; you just don't get paid
for it," says Horowitz. "You can take an unpaid vacation
anytime you want, but if you can't afford it, it's not much of
anything. So we're paying a hefty price for flexibility."
When a third of the workforce is working
independently, the other two-thirds can't help but be affected.
And in many ways, Horowitz points out, the issues that Working
Today tackles are relevant to anyone trying to make a living in
the new economy. "There's a great feeling of unpredictability
in work life, no matter who you are, a feeling that you're not
going to get a job that lasts forever," she says.
Horowitz speaks from personal experience.
After a stint as a public defender, she took a job as an independent
contractor with a "very progressive" labor law firm.
So progressive, in fact, that it didn't pay her benefits.
She found the same sort of situation when
she worked with the National Health and Human Services Employees
Union. "Even with one of the best unions, you could see how
the law really wasn't fitting the way people were working. And
there was no way to have a conversation about it. So as a lawyer,
you were arguing one thing, but it felt very much like you weren't
hitting what the real issue was."
Extracting the real issue in an argument
is something that comes with a lawyer's territory. Horowitz credits
UB with providing her with the solid groundwork in analytical
thinking that is so essential to her profession. "I often
think that what law school teaches people is to think "bilingually":
There's the way normal people think, and then there's the way
lawyers think. And it's helpful to be trained to think like a
lawyer because [in a big, complex situation] you need to be able
to focus on what the real issue is," she says. "I really
loved UB Law because the focus was much more about ideas than
just looking at the law in a stale two-dimensional way."
Her interest in the plight of workers
goes further back than UB, however-it runs in the family: Her
father was a labor lawyer; her grandfather, a vice president of
the Ladies Garment Workers' Union. Horowitz herself started working
for unions when she was 18. "I knew I wanted to work in the
labor movement. In fact, when I applied to Cornell [for its labor
school], it didn't occur to me that there was another side-that
somebody could actually want to be in management."
It wasn't until she enrolled in the M.P.A.
program at Harvard's Kennedy School, however, that Horowitz began
to figure out how she could make her own contribution. During
her first week of classes, she happened to read an article in
the New York Times about the need for a jobs lobby and a political
voice for workers. The problem, Horowitz thought, was that people
were no longer connected to their workplaces.
"I started to think, ‘Well, what
would the new structure be? How would you do it?'" she says.
"I think because I had studied labor relations and had worked
for unions, I was trying to approach it on a very on- the-ground,
practical level. Rather than just a social movement per se, it
had to be something rooted to people's everyday life. It was from
there that I started to think about Working Today."
decade later, Horowitz still considers Working Today a work in
progress. This spring marks the launch of its first big project:
a portable-benefits fund for freelancers. The pilot will focus
on the new media industry in New York City. So when a freelance
web programmer-let's call her Judith-for example, pays the $25
annual membership fee, she will have access to group-rate health
insurance benefits that will cost her about $175 per month-30
to 50 percent less than what she pays individually now for a comparable
package. Best of all, when Judith moves on to the next website
client, which is to be expected in this industry, she will take
her benefits with her.
The portable-benefits fund was a logical
first step for Working Today: The lack of af fordable health insurance,
Horowitz found, was one problem that confronted freelancers every
day. And new media workers in New York City were a perfect focus
group, in part because of the sheer size of the workforce-some
100,000 workers, almost half of whom are reportedly freelance-and
because their salaries will enable them to meet the premium costs.
Once the pilot program is off the ground, Working Today can start
expanding the fund to include other groups. In the meantime, the
staff is setting up policy forums and public-education projects
in an attempt to raise awareness of the issues involved, as well
as to keep the organization focused on the broader agenda.
Working Today got a boost in visibility
last year when Horowitz won the MacArthur fellowship, a no-strings-attached
grant of $275,000 over five years. It was an important honor for
her, both professionally and personally ("It's the pension
I never had," she says), but it is still too soon to gauge
its impact on her cause. What is clear is that her commitment
will continue long after the MacArthur money runs out.
"I have no doubt that I'll just continue
doing this kind of work," she says. "When I was 18 I
think I was doing good work, and now I'm 36 and I think I'm doing
good work. I hope that into my 60s I'll still be able to say I'm
doing good work. Some people play violin, some people lay bricks;
this is just what I do."
In the short run, Horowitz will also be
changing a few diapers (her daughter, Rachel, was born in late
January) and, if she can find the time, possibly learning how
to quilt. Indeed, despite the revolution Working Today may be
leading, Horowitz is matter-of-fact about her part in it. Working
Today is but one of several labor experiments around the country;
there is no one-size-fits-all solution to making work work in
America. If she can come up with one viable solution, Horowitz
will have made her mark.
"It's funny: I interview a lot of
kids who are right out of college, and they always want to be
really effective; they really want to change things," Horowitz
says. "I've really grown to like the people who just want
to be helpful."
Clare O'Shea, M.A. '87 & B.A. '84, is editor
of the parenting and family area of B&N.com, the website of Barnes