Here Come the Web Workers

Sometimes being a web worker is just plain demoralizing. Maybe you’re the only person on your block who telecommutes. Maybe your mom just phoned to ask when you’re going to get a real job so she doesn’t have to feel so ashamed when talking to Mrs. Wilson who has that nice son in med school. Or maybe you’ve just finished an 18-hour all-night marathon pulling together that new set of design comps and gone out for a well-deserved beer, only to have one of your so-called friends remark, “It must be nice to just lay around the house all day.”

Take heart! As a web worker, you’re part of a veritable army of people pursuing nontraditional careers. Sure, there are still a whole lot of people who get up every day and trudge into the same office to collect that steady paycheck. But there are also a whole lot of us who don’t do that – whether you call us web workers, independent contractors, freelancers, or temps, we’re everywhere.

Case in point: New York’s Freelancers Union is a 40,000-strong association of the new type of worker in New York state. They offer message boards, job postings, discounts, and advocacy, but their main draw is access to group insurance programs. Without any sort of collective bargaining, Freelancers Union is more like a giant buying club open to freelancers only than a traditional union, but it does serve to indicate the size of our sector of the economy in one chunk of the country. Even if you’re not in New York, you can join (it’s free); they’re planning a nationwide push and expansion of their insurance benefits, and are trying to guage interest in different areas of the country to see where to go next.

Another data point: as of 2005, the US Census Bureau says there were 18.6 million businesses with no paid employees – that being their way of measuring self-employment. I’m one of them, and unless you’re living dangerously close to the edge of a lawsuit, you probably are too. Of course, so is the beauty salon down the block and the little cafe around the corner, so we need to be a bit cautious in how much we make of that number. But with hundreds of thousands of new people entering the self-employed ranks every year, it seems pretty clear that they’re not all working inside of storefronts. Some substantial chunk of those millions are carting laptops around with the rest of us.

Of course, not every freelancer is a web worker. Graphics artists, dancers, writers, editors, programmers, web designers, actors, office temps, sex industry workers, carpet cleaners…the list of occupations without a “steady job” isn’t a perfect match for the list of those who spend their days living in the virtual world. And by the same token, not everyone who spends their entire day online is a web worker. We all know people who manage to lead active online lives despite the fact that they’re theoretically on the clock for a major corporation (or living at home with their parents and not working at all, for that matter).

As web workers, we’re at the intersection of these two trends. As the rising curve of self-employment meets the growing use of the Internet as a legitimate third place, we’re already there. We are the self-employed who choose to live our lives (and therefore manage our careers, though that’s cause, not effect) on the web.

The interesting question is what role we web workers will have in tapping into the potential power of this growing trend as more people come to join us? Will we be content to continue to organize purely for fun, through blogs and IM and Twitter and all the other overlapping communications structures of the Web? Will we be turned into a vast political force, as the growing crop of 2008 presidential candidates clearly hope? Can we follow the Freelancers Union example and find ways to work as a self-help group, leveraging the buying power of our numbers? Will the “work” side of the equation move us towards the more traditional union organizing of groups like WashTech?

If history is any guide, the answer is “all of the above.” The web – and our growing tribe of web workers – is too anarchic and varied to be pushed in any one particular direction. But with the explosive growth of our numbers in recent years, one thing seems clear: if we don’t want other people deciding to speak for us, we’re going to have to decide how to speak for ourselves. Our demographic is just too large to hide unnoticed in the shadows.

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