Joining a union isn't a realistic option for millions of Americans in the labor force, be they independent contractors, laid-off managers or even, in many cases, ordinary employees.
So is there another way to pull working people together and give them both a political voice and something resembling the bread-and-butter benefits of union membership?
A fledgling organization called Working Today is trying to do just that. Operating out of a small office in New York City, the nonprofit group wants to provide American workers with much the same kind of consumer services and lobbying clout that the powerful American Assn. of Retired Persons brings the elderly.
One of Working Today's main missions is to smooth the turbulence in American society created by such jolting workplace trends as downsizing and employers' increasing reliance on "contingent workers" such as temps and independent contractors.
"The nature of work has changed," said Sara Horowitz, the energetic, 33-year-old executive director of Working Today. "The days of full-time jobs with job security are over, and people are being whipsawed."
Still, Horowitz maintained, "If we pool our resources, we can find ways to do well in this economy."
To that end, just over a year ago Horowitz launched Working Today, and it now claims a modest membership of about 1,000. (Its model, the AARP, boasts more than 30 million.) But for $10 a year in dues, Working Today members already receive several tangible benefits.
One of them is a prepaid legal plan that lets members contact lawyers who provide free 30-minute consultations covering work or personal matters, along with 20% discounts on service beyond that.
With an eye toward the growing numbers of workers who no longer receive benefits from employers, Working Today also offers group-rate discounts on health insurance.
Californians who join Working Today can buy, for example, a package including individual health, prescription drug, dental, vision and life insurance with a $1,000 health coverage deductible for $199 a month. The charge is $479 a month for a family of three or more.
For entrepreneurs and other self-employed workers, Working Today eventually hopes to secure discounts on such items as computers, office supplies and car rentals. "A lot of people really need these benefits," Horowitz said.
What arouses Horowitz's true passion, however, is the political side of her idea. Broadly speaking, she wants to inspire a popular movement to help people deal with the changes in the American workplace.
For starters, she wants to launch a lobbying effort to provide portable health and pension benefits so workers won't be hurt when they change or lose jobs. She considers the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act signed by President Clinton last summer as only "a nice first baby step" in the right direction.
Horowitz also wants to fight for tax relief for independent contractors. She notes that independent contractors have to pay for the full cost of their Social Security obligation, while workers classified as employees split the cost 50-50 with their employers.
Another political aim would be to rewrite civil rights and labor laws to protect independent contractors the same way they already do for regular employees.
While Horowitz has been successful in raising about $190,000 from foundations to launch her group, it remains a longshot proposition. One of the biggest obstacles is apathy.
"There's a general societal stalemate that makes it tough for a group like Working Today to operate," said Thomas Geoghegan, a labor lawyer, author and member of Working Today's board.
"It needs an energized base [of supporters], and this is not a country with a lot of energized people at the moment."
But Horowitz, a former labor lawyer whose grandfather was a garment workers union official, is no stranger to uphill battles. She is frustrated by how labor laws dating back to the 1930s generally bar contingent workers from joining unions, and by the way corporate union-busting campaigns have thwarted ordinary employees from organizing.
Still, she sees Working Today as representing a cause that crosses over typical political boundaries. "We don't have any litmus tests or dogma," she said. "You don't even have to like unions to be in our group."
For more information about Working Today, write to the group at: P.O. Box 681, Times Square Post Office, New York, NY 10108. Or you can call Working Today at (212) 840-6066 or visit its Internet World Wide Web site at: http://www.workingtoday.org
Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org