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Tech Freelancers Represent New Frontier For Steelworkers Union

United Steelworkers Building
Gene J. Puskar/AP
The United Steelworkers union is collaborating with WH Digital, a freelancer cooperative in Pittsburgh's Allentown neighborhood, to organize local freelance workers in the tech sector and other "creative" professions such as photography and journalism.

Although independent contractors do not have full union rights under current labor law, the United Steelworkers union is pursuing alternate means to organize local tech freelancers.

The initiative, called Freelancers Organized for Change, Unity, and Strength, or FOCUS, seeks to build a network of independent contractors working in digital and other “creative” professions such as photography and journalism.

“Whether you're doing freelancing as a full-time gig or a part-time thing or just you're really passionate about a hobby and you wanted to turn it into more of a business, the resources are not always there to know how much you should get paid for something, what kind of legal paperwork you need, [and] what kind of protection you need in order to make sure that you're able to do your job effectively,” said Maddi Love, marketing director at WH Digital, a freelancer cooperative that partnered with the USW to launch FOCUS.

Love said that FOCUS plans to gather and publicize data on freelancer pay and to inform contractors about their rights as workers. The group eventually could also assist freelancers with preparing taxes and obtaining health and business insurance, Love said.

But, she noted, “Our goal right now is to listen … to what freelancers in the Pittsburgh region and in this ecosystem want and need, how they want to organize, and how we can support that.”

Love said her organization began to collaborate with the USW in February. On Wednesday evening, the groups will host their first quarterly networking event at South Shore Riverfront Park.

FOCUS marks the latest push in the USW’s effort to organize tech workers in the region. The union scored a historic win last month, when contract workers based at Google’s Bakery Square office ratified their first labor contract with employer HCL America. When they voted in 2019 to affiliate with the USW, the contractors were believed to be the first white-collar employees to unionize while performing work for a major tech firm.

Freelancers, by contrast, are not considered to be employees and, thus, cannot join a full-fledged collective bargaining unit. As independent contractors, they complete projects for clients, who can dictate the results of the work, but not the conditions under which the job is done.

Love noted that such autonomy “is really an attractive part of being a freelancer.” But, she added, “you still need resources to know … what others in the region are charging for similar products or services.”

“So, for example, if I am a new photographer and I'm still kind of an amateur and I'm just trying to get my toe in the water here,” Love said, “what do I charge? ... What's reasonable, and what is just undercutting like crazy and is not going to benefit me or anyone else in the region?”

FOCUS can help independent contractors “to collectively figure that out,” Love said. She noted that WH Digital sets new benchmark rates each year for its freelancers. Located in Pittsburgh’s Allentown neighborhood, WH Digital usually has a roster of 80 freelancers who specialize in tech and marketing, according to Love.

“We're really, really strongly enforcing fair wages and making sure that people are paid not only a livable wage, but also a wage that accounts for [their] health care [costs] and taxes,” Love said.

By expanding that effort with FOCUS, she said, “We do … feel that there is a level of support that can be given similar to a union.”

An-Li Herring is a reporter for 90.5 WESA, with a focus on economic policy, local government, and the courts. She previously interned for NPR Legal Affairs Correspondent Nina Totenberg in Washington, DC, and the investigations team at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. A Pittsburgh native, An-Li completed her undergraduate studies at the University of Michigan and earned her law degree from Stanford University. She can be reached at aherring@wesa.fm.