Was the Weird Labor Dustup over Airbnb Housekeepers a Trojan Horse?

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

Protesters at a rally against illegal hotels Jan. 21. (Photo: Jaime Cone)

New Orleans   Over recent weeks there has been a spit fight involving the controversial in-home rental app, Airbnb, and various labor unions, including the frequently controversial Service Employees International Union and its even more controversial former president, Andy Stern, and the now much less widely known hotel workers union, Unite HERE, and a bunch of housing groups. At issue was a potential deal, now scuttled, that would have had Airbnb recommending union cleaners to its hosts and guaranteeing that they would be paid at least $15 per hour and “green” certified. What in the world was this all about, other than perhaps the easier work of making a mountain out of a mole hill?

What’s the beef? SEIU has been the driving force in the “fight for $15” campaign and they have long “owned” the jurisdiction on many types of cleaners. This could not have been a big deal for them. Maybe they would have gained a couple of members or more likely a couple of more hours for work for already existing members, and that only in jurisdictions like New York and California where they have fought and won high union density for such workers. Largely though this would have been little more than a press flurry for a couple of days that then would disappear from consciousness. For Airbnb operators this would have been a fix looking for a problem, since most are either cleaning their own places or already have cleaners, many, if not most of whom are already making more than $15 per hour since they are on-demand workers with more individual bargaining power.

What SEIU seems not to have fully realized is that the fight around Airbnb in tight housing markets like San Francisco, New York, and others where there are active housing groups is intense and polarized, and there is no demilitarized, neutral zone. But, SEIU certainly was well aware that these same areas are also areas where Unite HERE has significant organization among hotel workers, so they have common cause in seeing Airbnb or any service that takes guests out of a union hotel as the anti-Christ. Going back to the jurisdictional wars within labor what was a close labor partnership between the unions went way, way south, when SEIU offered a safe haven for parts of UNITE and its former leader, Bruce Raynor, in an internecine struggle with John Wilhelm. To put another finger in Unite HERE’s eyes, the architect of that shotgun merger was Andy Stern, who reportedly was also representing Airbnb in these preliminary negotiations about this deal.

Neither Airbnb nor SEIU had much to gain other than a couple of props and press releases from this deal, so it is no surprise that current SEIU President Mary Kay Henry, saw this as a distraction, and quickly went to current Unite HERE president’s Dee Taylor’s Las Vegas stronghold to, in all likelihood, get her hand slapped, apologize, and hope the whole mess would die like other things in Vegas. This was all much ado about nothing.

Unfortunately, this let’s-make-a-deal love affair between some unions and Silicon Valley tech operations is worrisome still. Airbnb doesn’t really have a labor problem in any classic sense, but something like Uber, the ride sharing app really does. In a recent court settlement on Uber, in exchange for pretending their drivers were not employees, Uber agreed to some vague language about being willing to meet with – or help create a forum – for associations of their drivers to discuss issues. Actual unions of Uber drivers have been in formation in Seattle and other West Coast cities. Was it a lawyer or a union advisor that thought these meetings and company “unions” were a good idea as anything but a union-avoidance strategy? Certainly, the campaign master and deal maker for Uber is someone with rich Democratic politics experience from the Obama campaigns and relationships with a lot of current – and former – union leaders. I would worry that Airbnb might have been a Trojan horse for an Uber type problem, since too many are painfully fuzzy about the hard core anti-labor, job destroying, disruption philosophy that is the dominant ideology of Silicon Valley.

The next shoes that fall could hurt a lot more than this one.

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Magic Math Won’t Beat Money In-Hand on Airbnb Urban Battles

Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers

Wall Street Journal 2015 numbers

New Orleans    Airbnb, Uber, Twitter, Facebook, whatever, you pick what new phone app-driven techno billionaire wannabes, you worry about, and I’ll pick mine. Deep in your heart, you know Uber is taking advantage of its drivers and ripping everyone off on taxes and Social Security, but perhaps more deeply, the taxicab industry seemed be asking for it. Airbnb is worrisome in a different way, but once again, who can defend the low-wage, tip-based exploitation of workers that is at the heart of the hotel industry, especially in a city like New Orleans where the hospitality industry drives the economy, making the per capita income for the city among the lowest for the largest one-hundred cities in the United States.

All of which brought me to watch and listen to an interview being organized by the Lens,  a local internet news operation, that was billed as an opportunity to get at the heart of the controversy. Sadly, the reporter was interviewing a stone cold anti-advocate, and that’s fine, here we defend advocates of all stripes and sizes without reservation, but he was so confused about whether he was a reporter or an advocate himself with his own axes to grind, that there were nothing but softballs thrown, and no challenge to even the most preposterous comments. That’s life, sometime we win, and sometimes we lose, but we still have to show up, and I did.

I also learned some things inadvertently that were disturbing and, unfortunately, convinced me that Airbnb, come what may, is going to win most of these fights wherever it goes. The unassailable proposition for the anti-Airbnb folks is that no one wants to wake up one day and find that their block is now populated by revolving door mini-motels. On that we can probably all agree, but after that, when the fur starts flying, we’re going downhill trying to hold Airbnb in check, and that’s not just because there’s no clear target or face of the enemy like there is in most corporate fights, but it doesn’t help that the dividing line of the anti’s is also against many of their own neighbors, who aren’t running underground motels, but are renting out spare rooms from time to time.

Where the anti’s are going to fall hard is trying to use magic math to fight the company against its promises of cash on the barrel to money-starved cities, like New Orleans.

The tripping point that catches anti’s is that they start their argument against the company around the lack of data, and then use fabricated data to make their case. That’s not a winning tactic! In thirty minutes, I heard wild claims that Airbnb folk make $250 a night: heck, hotels in New Orleans don’t even do that well! People pretended that folks in the French Quarter have not bemoaned the “loss of neighborhood” for the last 50 years or more, which certainly they have. Some claimed bed-and-breakfasts were upright, licensed taxpayers, which has been an issue in the city – and with the hotel industry — for decades. And, the notion that a huge part of the city’s population hasn’t tried to rent out spare rooms or whole houses for Mardi Gras, Jazz Fest, and Super Bowls in New Orleans since before smartphones or apps were even invented is just crazy. Couple that with the common knowledge that Katrina doubled rents – and housing prices, and they have stayed that way, especially in unflooded neighborhoods, and no one sober is going to believe that it’s Airbnb that has accelerated gentrification and pushed many affordable units into the stratosphere. Mix all that in the gumbo with exaggerated claims based on a Brooklyn-based website called Inside Airbnb on the number of properties and the percentage that were full houses, and what do you have?

A lot of this magic math falls apart if anyone takes the time to actually see how Airbnb works. The listed or hoped for price, is not the same as the price someone gets if they book a guest. Furthermore, if anyone monitors this, the prices have gone down because Airbnb now gives recommended prices that often differ from the “list” price, just like hotels do, obviously. Furthermore, it seems almost anyone who wants to list a place with more than one bedroom in a funny twist of the Airbnb system, almost has to list the property as a full house, throwing off all the so-called statistics yet again. In our coffeehouses we see a lot of younger people, and we are located in some of the “hot” neighborhoods in the city. There’s no question that anyone who thinks that they might have even a shot at having a guest, lists with Airbnb, but talking to many of them, even if they are part of the “listed” statistics, they have never had a paying guest in over a year.

Meanwhile, when Airbnb offers a city a “deal” that they will collect the taxes on actual rents, slap on some rules, and turn over the money every month, who believes they won’t take it? The city ends up ahead with a minimum of expenditure on staffing and enforcement, which they are failing at anyway, especially when other, richer cities are reporting abysmal enforcement rates. That’s going to be a hard argument to beat with magic math, exaggerations, random stories, and finger pointing. To have a chance with something like Airbnb, we need an “app for that” works better than yelling that the sky is falling.

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