People Want to Talk about Squatting

Oakland    Over the last several days of screening THE ORGANIZER, I’ve noticed something interesting that is piquing peoples’ interest more and more about the movie.  Our friends in Bulgaria translated the movie so that they could run captions in their language at a screening in Sofia, and I skyped in for the Q&A.  Again, in big town Los Angeles and then along the central coast in the smaller city of San Luis Obispo before and after the screenings, people picked up the same thread.  Everyone wanted to know more about ACORN’s tactical experience with squatting.

On many levels I’m not surprised.  We’re in an affordable housing crisis.  People everywhere, not just in Europe or California are coming to grip with the changed reality of housing supply and finance.  Ownership is increasingly out of the question except for the one percent or those moving that way in many countries, states, and cities.  Public or social housing that is government run and subsidized is increasing inadequate and off the table as a realistic alternative for millions of families.  People are embracing predatory installment land contracts in “as is” condition without a clue, because it’s what they can afford.  Rents and evictions are off the charts.  Housing and developer trade associations are well the funded, localized equivalent of the gun lobby nationally and in many states make rent control and better housing regulations almost impossible to win for anything but the strongest organizations and most unified campaigns.  The list could be even longer and still not be all inclusive.

Documentary viewers are either being reminded or introduced for the first time to ACORN’s efforts beginning in the 1980s to squat in housing that had gone vacant and, in our slogan, “put houses that need people with people who need housing.”  They see the militance of ACORN’s leaders and members as they demanded change, broke through the boarded doors and windows of abandoned houses and moved in.  They see the encampments ACORN called “Reagan Ranches,” in various cities and on the ellipse of the White House in Washington, D.C. They see footage of Congressman Henry Gonzalez and the announcement of the passage of a bill that legalized the transfer of such houses to low-and-moderate income families.  Turns out squatting is not only an exciting tactic but offers a path to victory.

Perhaps that’s what we need to do now:  start squatting again!  This time the squatting should not just be in our own neighborhoods but in the exclusive enclaves of the rich in city after city so that the housing crisis is seen by everyone not just as our problem but a problem for everyone, and a problem that must be met and resolved.  People are clearly more than curious.  They are desperate for a winning tactic and strategy.  They see ACORN squatting working, and they want a piece of that.


Gig Economy Promoters Drinking Their Own Kool-Aid

Los Angeles     There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the explosion of the so-called “gig” economy and whether its growth foretells the future of work for Americans.  Such a future would mean a series of part-time jobs, no clear employer or employment status, skimpy to non-existent benefits and a narrow path to sustainable work for millions.  Some think that the growth of such jobs would be plentiful enough to substitute for automation and deindustrialization.  Other have argued that a universal basic income needs to supplement the availability of such work in order to create sustainability.

No one ever really knows the future, but it’s always worth some amount of worry, especially when it comes to work.  When it comes to the gig economy though a recent report by Lawrence Mishel of the respected, DC-based Economic Policy Institute lays out a comprehensive case that those soothsayers arguing that the gig economy is the future are basically drinking their own Kool-Aid at least when it comes to its current impact on employment.

The EPI report looks most carefully at recent data on Uber drivers and their incomes.  The bottom line is that Mishel found that once all expenses, commissions, and benefit costs were factored in, an Uber driver was lucky to average $9.21 per hour.  When converting the number of part-time and some time almost 850,000 Uber drivers, Mishel was only able to convert about 90,000 into full-time equivalents.  Factoring in other studies that put the impact of Uber on total gig economy at about two-thirds, the role of gig work in overall US employment was a relatively miniscule 0.1%.  That’s not nothing, but it certainly doesn’t convincingly lay claim to portending the future of work past pure speculation.

Mishel brings his argument to a sharp point on the academic side, saying,

These findings—and the fact that many Uber and other workers who provide personal services via a digital platform do so on a part-time basis primarily as a way to earn supplementary income—argue for a change in perspective. There has been much hype around Uber and the gig economy. But in our assessment, in any conference on the future of work, Uber and the gig economy deserve at most a workshop, not a plenary.

If at best it’s only worth a workshop for economists, it’s hardly worth a full beer’s worth of discussion for labor organizers.

Informal, contingent, and temporary employment, no matter what they are called in the less than full-time service economy continues to give huge definition to global and domestic employment.  These are challenges worth the full-time struggle and effort.  Gig employers seeking special favors from legislators and money from investors to allow them free rein over workers have clear interests in promoting themselves as the future of work and everything else, but the rest of us need to brush off their special pleadings and keep our eyes on creating winning strategies for workers struggling now to build power in an array of real jobs in the current economy.