Many mutual aid societies were organized as fraternal lodges with romantic or strange names, such as the Independent Order of Oddfellows or the United Order of True Reformer. Members paid dues in exchange for access to a wide range of services, based on the principle of reciprocity: today’s donor might be tomorrow’s recipient.Mutual-aid societies often offered old-age, disability, unemployment and catastrophic insurance. Mutual-aid societies often offered old-age, disability, unemployment and catastrophic insurance. Some societies even ran their own health-care services, going beyond merely employing doctors to build and operate hospitals and other health facilities. A number of societies also expanded into other revenue-generating ventures like banking and funneled the profits back toward their membership.Some were organized around religion. (Today, the Knights of Columbus are known as an important Roman Catholic charity, but they were originally founded as a mutual aid society for Catholic immigrants.) Others were founded according to affiliations by workers’ profession or region. Several mutual aid societies catered to African-Americans, providing a crucial safety net and sense of empowerment to many black workers in an era of white supremacy.Induction ceremonies and member folklore helped build a sense of affiliation within the mutual-aid societies. Not only did these societies provide important services, they offered members a sense of empowerment and belonging. Induction ceremonies and member folklore helped build a sense of affiliation within the groups. But they faded over the course of the 20th century as New Deal programs took over social insurance and outlawed private alternatives.What we need are mutual aid societies for the 21st century. Many services, such as training and social networking, could be provided online as well as in person.There are already some modern-day analogues. The Freelancers Union, for example, provides members with health-care coverage, job training and advocacy. Such options should be available to a wide range of people, regardless of their profession.
Read the full story at A 19th-century solution to the high-tech problems of the gig economy