The Challenges of Organizing Gig Workers

When we think about organizing precarious “gig” workers, the task seems biblical.  The workers may be ready, or not, but the spirit and the flesh are weak. We all bemoan the rise of gig workers. Low pay, few hours, no benefits are some of them, worsened by the uncertainty of a position where you can only work to deliver something being demanded by consumers at a premium you are powerless to control. App companies misclassify workers as independent contractors rather than employees in order to pass on all of the maintenance and capital costs, aside from web work and marketing, to the workers, avoiding the personnel benefit and equipment costs that are routine and inescapable for regular employers. Worker conditions seem to cry out for a union, but unions have to be wary at answering the call no matter how loud.

A recent “strike” by Uber drivers in Los Angeles illustrates the problem. The company had triggered the strike by increasing its percentage of the fare, thereby decreasing drivers’ pay.  In response, the drivers turned off the Uber application on their phone.  Stated more plainly, they went on strike by simply didn’t respond to any calls or inducements to drive.

Did it work?  Who knows?  How would any of us, whether organizers, curious observers, or company officials, know how to measure the number of drivers protesting in this way versus those who just decided not to drive on any given day or got ticked off and responded to Lyft instead or whatever?  ACORN tried a similar approach in the early 1970s when we were fighting increases by the Arkla Gas Company in central Arkansas. Our “Turn Off Arkla Day!” action got a bit of press, as the Uber drivers did in Los Angeles. But in both cases, the company yawned since there was no way to measure whether the strike affected their cash flow at all.

Organizing gig workers can be challenging, but there’s some good work going on for bicycle deliver drivers in Europe, where companies like Uber Eats, Deliveroo, and others have become ubiquitous. Last fall one of ACORN’s affiliates organized a meeting in Brussels that brought together union activists interested in organizing European bicycle delivery drivers with fledgling groups of drivers from a dozen countries from the UK, Netherlands, Germany, and others. That meeting highlighted several active organizing projects:

  • Bike Workers Advocacy Project (BWAP), a new group seeking to organize cycling workers and, eventually, lead to some kind of unionization or union-style representation. Drivers at Postmates and Caviar in New York City and some bicycle shops seemed to be stirring the pot in 2018, but nothing seems to have emerged formally to date.
  • Bike delivery workers at Foodora and Dilveroo in Germanyhave raised issues about low wages and their independent contractor situation while advocating for a union.
  • In 2016, London gig workers for delivery services Deliveroo and Uber Eats organized protests and strikes for higher wages.  There was also an outcry in Philadelphia when a rider for Caviar was killed while working.
  • Legal action has managed to win back employment rights, such as a recent ruling in Spain that declared that a Deliveroo rider was in fact an employeeand not an independent contractor, as the company claimed. Caviar is in mandatory arbitration in California on the same issue.  As importantly, riders in London struck for three days in 2018, and joined with striking McDonalds’s workers to demand higher wages, largely organized by a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

While these examples seem promising, unions clearly lack any real commitment to organize these workers, and the workers have limited leverage. David Chu, who directs the European Organizing Center, a joint project between European unions and the US-based Change to Win federation, told me recently that he hears a lot of talk about organizing gig workers but sees little action in that direction, but perhaps the spirit – and many workers – are willing to organize, but the flesh-and-bones unions are not?

Serious organizing efforts in the United States have been contradictory and embryonic.  Uber in New York City and San Francisco reacted to organizing efforts by attempting to coopt the organizations into agreeing that the workers were not employees in exchange for consultation rights on rule changes and other issues like receiving tips.  More concerted efforts to create a mini-National Labor Relations Board representation mechanism were launched at the municipal level in Seattle, but the organizing effort is currently mired in litigation over preemption by the National Labor Relations Act and the question of employee status.

Local efforts reflect the way companies keep changing their practices, as Marielle Benchehboune, coordinator of ACORN’s affiliate, ReAct, noted recently in Forbes. “What will make the difference,” she suggested, is workers organizing “on the transnational scale.” Perhaps her analysis is correct.  Perhaps a rare global organizing plan could create enough pressure and leverage among these competing companies that could weld a workers’ movement together from the disparate pieces of independent worker mobilizations that are cropping up around the world.

Given the challenges, how much should we invest in organizing gig workers? Labor economists in the US caution that despite all of the hype from Silicon Valley and even some labor officials about the emerging gig economy, it involves a very small percentage of the workforce.  Others, like Louis Heyman in the recent book, Temp: How American Work, American Business, and the American Dream became Temporary, argue that gig workers are just the pimple on the elephant’s ass of contingent and temporary labor that has been hollowing out the American workforce for decades, just as consultants have chipped away at management jobs as well.

I heard something similar fifteen years ago, when I asked a leader of the Indian National Trade Union Congress if they were doing anything to organize call center workers in India. He answered that they estimated that there were 30,000 such workers, but there were 450 million workers in India at the time and hardly 9% were organized.  He then shrugged. That’s all he said, but we got the message.  There’s much to be done in organizing the unorganized, and resources and capacity are always restrained, whether in India or Europe or North America.

Is that a reason for not finding ways to organize workers who are attempting on their own to find justice on their jobs? Or is it just another rationale for doing little or nothing?  The one thing that seems clear is that if unions are going to be relevant to the modern workforce and the irregular and precarious forms of work that are being created by technology married to avarice, we must debate and address these challenges. It may be difficult, but unions and organizers need to devise practicable strategies that allow workers to organize, win, and build enough power to force companies to adapt and change.

I wish we had the answer now, because the workers seem ready, but one way or another, we need to figure this out quickly!

The Challenges of Organizing “Gig” Workers Posted on April 29, 2019 by Working-Class Perspectives

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Minimum Wage Gaps Growing

New Orleans      There are twenty-one states where workers are still frozen at something equivalent to the federal minimum wage at $7.25.  Those states are disproportionately better “red than fed” in the South and West with a smattering in the Midwest and even the Northeast.

I’m not saying there are any surprises here, but the line-up is a rogues list of woe for workers:  In the South, count Alabama, Georgia, Kentucky, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia for nine of the twenty-two.  In the West, we have Idaho, Oklahoma, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming adding another six.  The Midwest is sadly also very well represented with Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, and Wisconsin for their four while the East adds two with Pennsylvania and New Hampshire.  The gap between these twenty-one states, along with several others that are hovering right near them like Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, and even Illinois, is widening the inequality gap not only between the rich and the rest of us, but even between low-and-moderate income families and their counterparts in other states.

Even with a Democratic governor, it’s not an easy road.  In Louisiana, John Bel Edwards has been turned back by the Republican-dominated legislature three times that he has tried to raise the state minimum wage.  It’s gotten so bad that a state constitutional amendment that would raise the minimum wage to $9 per hour, if approved by the voters, has even picked up support from the New Orleans Times-Picayune.  There were recent efforts to allow cities to set their own rates apart from the state level by vacating a law passed after an ACORN and Local 100 effort won an increase twenty years ago at the ballot box.

These issues were  highlighted in an analysis in the New York Times that talked about the effective rate across the country is now wildly different than the federal standard as other, very populated states, like New York and California, along with major cities like Seattle have raised their wages.

Averaging across all of these federal, state and local minimum wage laws, the effective minimum wage in the United States — the average minimum wage binding each hour of minimum wage work — will be $11.80 an hour in 2019. Adjusted for inflation, this is probably the highest minimum wage in American history.  In 21 states where the minimum wage is still frozen, workers have lost 16% of their buying power.

Furthermore, as their analysis also indicated the main business boogeyman held up as the rationale for keeping wages abysmally low has also continued to erode:

a huge study released in April analyzed 138 different state-level minimum wage increases since 1979. The authors found largely no net negative employment effects, though they did find some in sectors exposed to international trade. And University of Washington economists revised an initial study of Seattle’s recent minimum wage increase that had showed significant negative effects on earnings for some workers. The new study found that the downsides were more muted.

Wrap your mind around this inequity.  If the “effective” national rate is $11.80 per hour now, then workers in these twenty-one states at $7.25 are almost hopelessly underpaid.  A national worker at fulltime hours would be making $24,544 annually, while workers in the left-behind states would make $15,080 fulltime, which is $9464 per year or almost 63% less that the theoretical national worker.  Of course, left-behind state workers actually are farther behind, because the national effective rate was an average after the rest of us pulled the really higher paid hourly workers down closer to our level, making their premium look and spend even more.  Furthermore, since the rate has changed, minimum wage workers are losing purchasing power even as others are gaining.

This kind of inequity at the bottom is as unjust as the gap between all workers now in America and the rich, and should be the easiest part of the inequality gap to eliminate, especially if Congress would act for everyone rather than mainly the rich as well.

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