Co-ops for freelancers? Guilded challenges the idea of ​​”starving artists”


When we learn about civilizations that have come and gone, we may learn about their agricultural practices, their economies, and even their streets and plumbing systems. Yet what endures the most and captures the hearts of those living today are craftsmanship and painting, poetry and architecture.

And yet, when it comes to creating artwork in our time, the society we live in has normalized the “starving artist” archetype. Because they create works driven by personal inspiration and a yearning for beauty, artists’ work is not really “work” and therefore the artist must do other work to pay the bills – at least c This is how the dominant narrative unfolds.

Yet the art is labor and the fruits of that labor are what make society worth living in, so artists and cultural workers should be paid fairly, should have access to benefits such as health care, and should have the ownership of their work and process.

This is the fundamental belief of the new worker cooperative, Guild. Launched as a pilot project around eighteen months ago, Guilded aims to provide benefits, administrative support, employee share ownership and equity to freelance artists and other contract workers. This will allow independent artists to have a stable base and organizational support so they can do the work that we know will be valuable to civilization, now and for centuries to come. And although Guilded starts with artists, the idea is to extend it to all kinds of workers, to eventually offer a mechanism and a platform to extend benefits to everyone who works freelance.

Support for freelancers, a growing share of the workforce

In today’s economy, a growing share of workers are not traditionally employed, but instead exist as freelancers, contractors, and self-employed workers. In fact, at least a third of all American artists were self-employed, according to a 2019 report by the National Endowment for the Arts. In the United States, artists are 3.6 times more likely to be self-employed than the average worker.

When you are employed, you have less autonomy over what you do and how you do it. But your employer must provide training, guidance, and materials to do your job, plus benefits like health care (if you’re a full-time employee) while contributing to social security, insurance -sickness and unemployment systems.

Conversely, as a contractor or freelancer, you have the autonomy to provide goods and services in the manner you deem appropriate, in agreement with the organization you work for. But you also have to pay state and federal taxes and welfare systems yourself, justify your own operating expenses, and even have to pay higher rates to buy your own benefits.

Freelancers are at a much higher risk of exploitation. [They] do not benefit from the traditional advantages of the traditional employment contract, often work without social benefits and without legal protection. —Hope Mohr, General Manager of Guilded

Today, freelancers and entrepreneurs make up a large part of the economy. Even big companies like Google have more entrepreneurs than employees. A report by Upworka platform that helps freelancers find work, found that more than a third (36%) of the U.S. workforce engaged in some kind of freelance work in 2021.

Some of the services Guilded offers aren’t all that rare for a traditional worker: the platform offers free or discounted tax preparation and access to health benefits. It has a guaranteed payout pool that pays freelancers on time, even if a client delays payment. “Guilded is for everyone, it’s designed to meet the needs of anyone, any type of freelancer anywhere in the country,” says General Manager Hope Mohr. “We are currently focusing on artists and cultural workers because I feel like that has been a really overlooked part of organizing.”

Collective benefits, collective power

More than just a collection of financial and administrative services, Mohr emphasizes Guilded as a tool for empowering and organizing artists. Guilded aims to go beyond what already exists, making it easier to pool resources while leveraging the power of artists and freelancers. As part of its outreach, it offers training and political education on building collective power.

In fact, Guilded started after being incubated by the United States Worker Cooperative Federation (USFWC), a larger organization that provides support and resources to worker cooperatives in all US industries.

USFWC Staff and Board of Directors. Credit: USFWC, AmbitioUS Investee

Daniel Park, a USFWC staff member and contractor for Guilded, helped the initiative get a foothold. “Guild members collectivize their purchasing power so they can get free or discounted access to tax preparation, healthcare, etc.,” he says. “None of this would be possible if there was just one person. It requires everyone to come together, organize and combine their resources and access.

Park first connected with the USFWC organizing for racial justice in the arts, and sees Guilded as a continuation of that work, as the lack of support and services disproportionately affects artists from communities marginalized. “This lack of support affects black people more. Impacts trans folx plus…we really go through all of this not just with a work frame in mind, but also an intersectional frame. For example, a Human Rights Campaign 2020 Report found that twenty-two percent of transgender adults and thirty-two percent of trans adults of color lack health care, which is significantly higher than 12% for non-LGBTQ adults.

As an artist, Park is also a Guilded user, having used their services for at least four previous client contracts. They helped with the wording of the contract, but also with the management of payment processes. Guilded’s aforementioned “guaranteed payment pool” even took over when a customer was late to pay, paying Park on time and collecting payment from the customer later. In cases like these, Guilded even has in-house staff to follow up on the client so artists don’t have to. “There’s another person here doing some of that work. It’s not just me anymore, I’m not alone in this anymore and I’m not the only one watching over me,” Park says.

Ownership and Equity

Guilded’s business model is inspired by the success of Clever in the European Union, which for decades has offered social benefits and employee share ownership to the self-employed. Guilded uses the same 6.5% fee as Smart, charged to customers, not freelancers. The hope is that clients see the value of paying these fees, both in terms of empowering freelancers, but also because it could reduce administrative costs for those who use freelance work a lot.

As for the model itself, Guilded’s stakeholders consist of three types of users: regular users, independent-owners and employee-owners.

  • Regular users are freelancers who can perform contracts through the platform and receive benefits through it.
  • Once a regular user uses Guilded enough, they become eligible to buy on the platform as a independent-owner. At this point, users have the option of purchasing a $100 equity share in Guilded, giving them both decision-making power and a financial investment in the co-op.
  • Employee-owners aren’t necessarily freelancers, but they do the administrative work necessary to keep Guilded running. They too have shares of governance and capital, although their decision-making capacities are different, adapted to the work corresponding to their positions.

“I think that’s one of the more radical parts of it,” Park says. “How often do freelancers not own their work and probably not feel like they own their work either?”

Exit from an experimental phase

Currently, Guilded is in an experimental phase. “[We are] test, ‘Does it work? How does it work in practice? Does it benefit people?” Park says, adding that the developments are done hand-in-hand with the artists. “Not just user metrics but…qualitative; we want to have a conversation with you and find out how you’re using Guilded?”

The idea is to replicate this in other parts of the country and eventually include all kinds of freelance and contract workers. In addition to Philadelphia, there is also a Guilded network in the San Francisco Bay Area.

With approximately 40 active users and many more registered, Guilded is built at the speed of trust where artists connected to USFWC have pre-existing connections with other artists. Soon there may be a cohort of Guild Freelancers near you.

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