Executive Director Rafael Espinal of the Freelancers Union Discusses Its Mission for Independent Workers Across the Country

Live from Music Row, Wednesday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed Rafael Espinal, executive director for the Freelancers Union, who explained his background in politics and the union’s mission of helping independent workers across the country.

Leahy: We are joined on our newsmaker line right now by Rafael Espinal. He’s the executive director of a group called the Freelancers Union. Good morning, Rafael. Thanks for joining us today.

Espinal: Thanks for having me. It’s a pleasure.

Leahy: So, the Freelancers Union. Who are you, what are you about, and what are your major objectives?

Espinal: Yes, so we are a national organization, not a traditional labor union, but it’s an organization that works to bring freelance workers together. So anyone who considers themselves to be a self-employed or independent worker can come to our organization and seek advice, help, and support on how to start and run your own freelance business.

So we focus a lot on building that community, advocating for the needs of independent workers, and also providing free programming so folks can know how to make sure that they’re writing proper contracts, getting paid on time, and are in a positive freelance journey.

Leahy: I see from your website, freelancersunion.org, that you’ve been around since 1995. Since your website is Freelancers Union dot-org, I’m guessing you are a nonprofit. What is your organizational status?

Espinal: We are a 501(c)(4) nonprofit political action organization. So we do have a nonprofit armor. We provide education and outreach and we also have a 501(c)(4) that we do a lot of advocacy on behalf of independent workers.

Leahy: Where are you based, Rafael?

Espinal: We’re based in New York City, but we have 5,000 members across the entire country, including in the state of Tennessee.

Leahy: Now when you say members, what has to happen for you to be a member of the Freelancers Union?

Espinal: First and foremost, you should be an independent worker. It doesn’t matter whether you do independent work full time or you have a side gig.

And second, you come onto our website and fill out a form – it’s free to join – and declare that you want to be a part of the organization and that you perform independent work.

Leahy: Interesting. You just join it and there’s no cost to it. Correct?

Espinal: Correct. There is no cost. Again, we are a nonprofit and our mission is to provide free access to education and resources to independent workers across the country.

Leahy: How many freelancers are there in the United States today?

Espinal: We’ve done some studies in the past and estimated that over 57 million Americans have performed independent work in the past year. We’re continuing to see that number grow.

I think the pandemic has really created an environment in which a lot of folks are turning to freelance work to provide and create an economy for themselves and not be in control of the 9-to-5 or the overall market.

Leahy: Now it’s interesting, your background. I’m looking at the 501(c)(3) that’s affiliated with the Freelancers Union. You’re a very interesting guy, Rafael.

Espinal: Thank you.

Leahy: You were New York’s youngest elected official. You were elected to the state assembly when you were 26 years old, is that right?

Espinal: I was. I got into politics after college and had a passion to run for office and do the good work and represent the people in my community, and in my district.

Leahy: Where did you go to college?

Espinal: I went to Queens College.

Leahy: Queens College. Is that in New York City?

Espinal: Queens, New York. Queens College.

Leahy: Okay, great.

Espinal: If you’re familiar with Jerry Seinfeld, that’s what he’s graduated from as well.

Leahy: There you go. Your parents were from the Dominican Republic, is that right?

Espinal: Correct. They were immigrants that came to this country when they were in their teens, and they themselves became freelancers at some point in their careers.

Leahy: Now it says in 2013, you were elected to the New York City Council. Oh, my goodness.

Espinal: Correct.

Leahy: What is that like? (Laughs)

Espinal: It’s politics. So I think we all can agree that it’s a little hectic, and there’s a lot of work you have to do in order to ensure that you’re representing the people of your city and your district. You run for office, and your job is to make sure you’re providing for your constituents.

Leahy: How much does the city council member make in New York City?

Espinal: In New York City, I think the current salary is about $148,000.

Leahy: To be a councilman?

Espinal: A council member, correct.

Leahy: Wow, that’s a lot of dough.

Espinal: I do believe Los Angeles has us beat. Los Angeles pays closer to $195,000.

Leahy: How long did you serve in New York City Council?

Espinal: I served for about seven and a half years.

Leahy: Why did you leave?

Espinal: Well, many reasons. I think mostly I saw an opportunity to continue my work of advocating on behalf of individuals, and the Freelancers Union gave me that opportunity.

I was term-limited as well, and I wanted to continue doing good work. So this presented an opportunity to continue that good work.

Leahy: Our news sites here, The Tennessee Star, have a conservative orientation, and this is a conservative talk show. I’m looking at the funding for the 501(c)(4), and it comes from the usual liberal suspects: The Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Robert Wood Foundation, and the MacArthur Foundation. And of course, you were a Democrat. I’m assuming you were a Democrat.

Espinal: I am a Democrat.

Leahy: Yes. How else could you get elected in New York City?

Espinal: Right, exactly.

Leahy: Is there an ideological element to what you’re doing here?

Espinal: The only ideology we have as an organization is ensuring that independent workers have the resources they need to succeed in our country.

Leahy: What’s your big objective for the coming year?

Espinal: We’re weaning out of the pandemic. I think we all can agree that a lot of independent workers were iced out of job opportunities because of all of the government shutdowns that happened early on in the pandemic.

So, just looking to ensure that they have the resources they need, access to affordable health care, being able to keep their businesses running, and that they’re doing the right thing to keep the clients on board.

Making sure that their contracts are tight enough to ensure that they’re getting paid on time. At the end of the day, one of the biggest issues independent workers face is that at the end of completing a job, when they go and collect from their clients, they have a tough time getting those dollars. We try to do a lot of education in ensuring that they don’t get stiffed.

Listen to the interview:


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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Reporwith Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Rafael Espinal” by Free Lancers Union. 














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