This article is published in our Perspectives section. Eric Thurm is the campaign coordinator for the National Writers Union, and the communications chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project.
When the legislative working group of the Freelance Solidarity Project and National Writers Union met last September, getting the Freelance Isn’t Free Act passed through the New York state legislature seemed like it should be a slam dunk. After all, New York is generally one of the more pro-labor states, and has recently elected a seemingly progressive legislature. The bill would be hugely consequential, but at the end of the day isn’t asking for much: it would guarantee thousands of freelancers basic rights, like written contracts and timely pay.
The Freelance Solidarity Project, a union of media workers fighting to raise standards for freelancers across the industry and a division of the National Writers Union, had its first meetings in the summer of 2018. All things considered, that’s a pretty short distance from “totally new organization” to “trying to win a major piece of legislation in one of the biggest states in the country.” But as newcomers to trying to get something passed in Albany, we thought: “Of course we can get this done on the first try!”
And we did. Once Governor Hochul signs the bill into law, freelancers will be entitled to a written contract and guaranteed payment within 30 days of completing work. If those things don’t happen, the state Department of Labor will have a mandate to go after the delinquent employer. If they win, the freelancer is entitled to twice the amount they were initially owed. Even freelancers outside of New York will be protected, so long as their employer is based here.
But getting the bill over the finish line wasn’t easy — and revealed a lot about how Albany works.
The pathways to getting something done in Albany are long, winding, and difficult to navigate by design. As an outsider, things are stacked against you. The legislative session runs from January through the beginning of June, and over a month of it is taken up by an intensive budgeting process, leaving little time to actually get something passed. Within that narrow window, there are several different choke points of people who have to sign off on a bill—in leadership, administration, committees—who won’t be obvious to someone just Googling “how do bills pass.”
I was relatively cynical going into the process, if confident in our ability to advocate for ourselves. But I had no idea how much our campaign would resemble running into a brick wall repeatedly, waiting for a tiny crack to show.
One reason we succeeded anyway was that we had partners helping to guide us through the maze. I am enormously lucky in this respect: My partner worked in state politics for several years and was part of the campaign to pass a major piece of climate legislation. She was able to suggest some early allies to reach out to in the legislature. We connected with Senator Andrew Gounardes, who became the bill’s sponsor and was an invaluable asset to the campaign. Senator Gounardes and his staff were highly receptive, and eventually put us in touch with Assembly Member Harry Bronson, who had introduced and helped pass the bill in the Assembly several years ago, back when Cuomo and the IDC controlled the Senate. Our sponsors weren’t just names on the bills: they answered questions, worked on policy, and brought their own relationships to bear.
The rest of our coalition—especially the Freelancers Union, the Graphic Artists Guild, and the Authors Guild—brought their own skills and insight, which helped immensely. We might have had plenty of members ready and willing to engage with the campaign, but we didn’t have a track record of making statewide policy, or knowing which questions to ask, and, perhaps most importantly, who to bother.
The support of established organized labor was crucial. FSP is pretty new, and while NWU has been around since 1981, it’s still not the biggest union around. The Teamsters, especially the Graphic Communications Council, put us in touch with advocates—lobbyists—who were able to set meetings with legislators, give us inside information, and generally provide advice on how to proceed. Having people from the labor movement with insight and expertise on how the process works in Albany was invaluable.
Without much prior context for what was happening, I spent a lot of time asking questions. How do the committees work, and what does it mean for a bill to move through them? Who is central staff, and what is their role in moving bills along? What will convince leadership—Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stuart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie—to put something on their agenda?
These are questions with real, useful answers, but they are not obvious if you’re not already deep in the world of Albany. For example: I am still not fully sure what central staff does, but to the best of my understanding, they include people who work for leadership, as well as people working for the various committees who focus on policy—meaning their job is, in part, to figure out how a law would work in practice if enacted by the legislature.
Even getting a meeting with someone in central staff posed a challenge. It turns out it’s important to give yourself a lot of lead time to ask for meetings and then wait to nudge people again and again before finally getting the chance to talk to them, whether it’s central staff, legislators themselves, or potential advocates. But in addition to actually getting to argue for the bill, this particular meeting was enlightening: We were able to understand why the people in charge of implementing Freelance Isn’t Free might be nervous about doing it, while remaining in a position to advocate for our members.
Even with that knowledge baseline, things often did not go the way they were supposed to. We planned two lobby days in Albany, where we would canvas the Capitol to visit legislators in their offices and ask them to sign on to the bill. Both times, events outside of our control blocked our ability to get there—the first time because our bus broke down, and the second because of a COVID exposure within the coalition. But our resourceful members rolled with the punches: both lobby days pivoted into a series of visits to legislators’ local offices in their districts across the city, from Borough Park to the East Bronx.
By meeting with legislators’ staff at their offices, calling them, emailing, and doing everything we could to make noise, we were able to get almost 40 co-sponsors across both houses. This is a necessary but insufficient condition for success—bills like the Build Public Renewables Act and New York Health Act have plenty of co-sponsors, but have been blocked by deep-pocketed opposition, a fate we were fortunate to avoid. The Freelance Solidarity Project has several hundred members in New York, and we were able to individually reach out to almost all of them to get them involved in the campaign. Throughout the process, we kept members up to date on what was happening in Albany, who we needed to reach out to, and why. This last part, I think, was especially important: it’s much easier to convince someone to take time out of their day to do advocacy work if they understand in specific terms how their phone call will help achieve the overall goal.
That foundation also helped us escalate when we needed to: Freelance Isn’t Free had passed through the State Senate’s Labor Committee, but wasn’t moving in the Assembly. We tried to figure out who to talk to learn what was going on and how to fix it, but ultimately we didn’t get anywhere. By the time we were able to get a hold of some of the right people, the Labor Committee was closed. In part, this is because the process is so compressed that everyone involved is incredibly busy and hard to reach. But the fact that it took enormous effort to move things along even though we never heard any real opposition to the bill reflects how slow-moving the process is.
To get the bill to pass, we needed to get people’s attention, which meant being loud. We mobilized members to ask Speaker Heastie to move on the bill by calling, tweeting, and, eventually, delivering a large novelty invoice for the bill’s overdue passage to his office. At the eleventh hour, direct action got the goods, and the bill moved from the Assembly Labor Committee, which had closed for the session, to the Ways and Means Committee, where it was able to effectively pass.
We didn’t get everything we wanted—no one does. At the last minute, we learned that leadership wanted the enforcement threshold in the bill to match the city’s in order to avoid a potential jurisdictional conflict. The difference between a $250 and $800 threshold is substantial, and means a lot to thousands of freelancers.
Unfortunately, by the time we learned about this, it was too close to the deadline for us to start the long process of working with the city and lobbying for a change. People’s time and attention is limited by design, which you can only circumvent with some combination of numbers, connections, money, and press.
Even though this wasn’t the version of Freelance Isn’t Free we started out with back in September, the bill is still a huge step toward raising standards for freelancers, and for every worker who has been barred from the benefits of traditional employment. And we’re not giving up on the enforcement threshold change—we’re going back to Albany. With everything we learned over the course of this first fight, I’m feeling pretty good about our chances.