Freelancers Union Time Dollars: The Experiment Begins

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Brother, can you spare an hour?

Right now, I have a lot of needs. I need to hem my jeans. I want to start taking piano lessons again. And I’m not sure I’ll last another year without knowing how to do some basic html. But I find it hard to come up with the $5, $50, and $200 I think it will take to meet those needs.

So I was thrilled—selfishly—when, at a staff meeting not too long ago, one of my coworkers announced the start of a Time Dollar experiment at Freelancers Union HQ. For six weeks, Freelancers Union staff will participate in the pilot project through which we offer and provide skills, goods, and services without exchanging any US legal tender.

What’s a Time Dollar System?

The Time Dollars concept is a system of mutual aid in the form of an alternative currency system that values all people’s time equally. Here’s what Aaron, the coworker championing this project, said: “Time Dollar programs promote community building, connectivity, and self-sufficiency by rewarding community members solely on the gift of the time they spend helping each other rather than the hourly monetary value the money economy assigns to a person’s skill set.” Basically, we all have different needs and different skill sets. If we pool our skills together, we all get what we need and everyone benefits.

Time Dollar programs are already successfully working in the health care industry to keep costs down (ElderPlan Medicare), in cities to help boost the economy (Ithaca Hours), and in developing communities to help build infrastructure (Time Banks).

Can you just give me one concrete example?

Are you a doctor who usually bills $200 an hour? A babysitter who pulls in $15 an hour? A web intern living on ramen and dreams? You each have 24 hours in a day, and one hour of your time is equal to one hour of anyone else’s. Simple but radical, if you ask me.

So imagine the doctor needs a babysitter for his kids, the babysitter needs a website to promote her services, and the intern hasn’t been able to afford a physical in three years. They won’t barter directly, but in a Time Dollar system, each of them can “earn” by sharing their expertise, and “spend” their Time Dollars on what they need. When the nanny does 3 hours of babysitting, she earns 3 Time Dollars. She can spend those Time Dollars paying the web intern to build her a website. The intern can use 1 of those dollars for a check-up at the doctor’s office.

Why now? Why us?

Sure, money seems to be in short supply these days, and freelancers more than anyone are prone to major income fluctuations. But more than a scheme for budgeting, we believe this a way to strengthen the communities freelancers live in, be that on a neighborhood or national level. We believe at our core that people can do for themselves—and do better—when they come together. Typical union solidarity talk! But we’re calling it “new mutualism,” and the “new” means that the internet, to say nothing of social networking and its attendant trappings, can now help us help each other in new ways.

The Economic Stimulus Package.

To start, we each received 5 Time Dollars and access to a website where we could post our available talents and needed services. I’ll keep you posted on how things progress and what we learn from the experiment. Even if the program doesn’t prove to be successful, at the very least we’ll have all learned what interesting talents our fellow coworkers have. (And, hopefully, someone will be able to hem my jeans.)

Above all, I view this as a valuable chance to share with you a flavor of how we experiment and iterate here at Freelancers Union, and to talk about ideas like “new mutualism” and how they’re woven into the work we do.

Next time, I’ll fill you in on the early postings to our Time Dollar board: What are people looking for? What do they have to offer? Hope you’ll enjoy going along for this ride!

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