Is the Gig Up or Down?

New Orleans      With statistical unemployment below 4% for the first time in years, economists, policy makers, politicians, and self-interested hucksters have found something new to throw statistics at each other backwards and forwards:  is the gig economy growing or slowing?  At many levels one might say it depends on who you ask.  At another level one has to worry about why it matters to the drum beaters.

So, just to review the field of battle for a minute.  The respected Economic Policy Institute in Washington weighed in recently that the gig economy was so marginal it was basically only worth a side room in an academic convention amounting to less than 1% of the jobs in the economy.  The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics trying to update its figures put the number higher than that but way less than double figures and cast doubt on whether the level of such employment was rising or falling.  Others argued that the BLS statistics were an undercount citing the almost 70% of Uber drivers who are not counted by BLS because they have payroll jobs, and Uber is their side gig, so to speak.  Gig promoters claim that more than one-third of the USA labor force is involved in some form of contract or freelance work.  No one disputes the fact that contingent, subcontract and temporary labor is huge, but sorting it out is guaranteed a migraine.

Let’s look at why it matters, big or small.

There’s a continuing push by the giggers to get changes in labor law protections, and that’s not good news for anyone but the giggers themselves who are trying to compete with more established employers in the same industries by sweating the labor of their workers.  Not having to pay social security, unemployment, health benefits and the rest of the package and instead pushing the costs over to the workers themselves saves a ton of money, if you are allowed to get away with it.  The whole point of Uber-kind businesses is in fact to get away with it, which is why they continue to fight here and abroad against any finding that they are responsible for their workforce and not simply an internet application.

It also matters when the bean counters determine how big the number is of fulltime gig workers, because these are workers who represent a long-term time bomb on society if they lack sufficient Social Security benefits to support themselves when they outlive their gigs.  A significant change in the composition of the workforce creates a burden that companies want to shed by passing their responsibility over to the rest of us.

Some good news came from an unexpected front in a southern California ruling against the Cheesecake Factory restaurant chain when they were hit along with their janitorial subcontractor for over $4 million on wage theft claims because workers were denied breaks and forced to work unpaid overtime hours before being released from the shift by Cheesecake managers.  Having employing companies held responsible for subcontractor violations could set precedents that protect contingent and temporary workers as well as gig workers.

We need a lot more victories along the Cheesecake lines because whether the number is huge or small we need to force these kinds of business in another direction where protection of workers’ rights and benefits is still part of the business model.

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Please enjoy Fionn’s Magazine Face.

Thanks to KABF.

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Momentum Building against Wage Theft

amazon-warehouse-employeeNew Orleans    Increasingly I get the feeling that there is real momentum building against the standard operating procedure of company’s ripping off their workers on wages. 

            The courts are not necessarily the workers’ friends on these issues though.  For example a recent ruling against steelworkers was surprising to me.  The court denied pay for the time spent by the workers in getting free of the hazardous conditions clothing they were required to wear in the mill. 

Another test is coming up before the Supreme Court in the coming session dealing with the fact that Amazon and its subcontractors in their numerous warehouses have been requiring workers to go through time consuming extra security screening after they have clocked out to make sure they aren’t stealing stuff from the warehouse.  This is a situation where the company seems super cheap since they both want to prevent “shrinkage” but also aren’t willing to hire enough screeners to process the workers out quickly.   The price tag for this wage theft would be huge since it involves a class action of 600,000 workers.

Sadly though, as the steelworkers’ case shows, the legal process may not be our best avenue for justice compared to blunt pressure and the court of public opinion.

Talking recently on Wade’s World on KABF with Anne Janks, the national poultry organizer for the Chicago-based group Interfaith Worker Justice, directed by longtime activist Kim Bobo, it was still shocking to hear how widespread wage theft is in the poultry industry.  Janks indicated it was nothing fancy, just plain holding workers while the production line was down and not paying them, sometimes for hours per day, even with big companies like the giant chicken plucker, Tyson’s.  The fact that much of the workforce are newer immigrants, and according to Janks, not just Latinos but also eastern Europeans, Somalians, and others.

It was hard to tell if the Amazon case originated in the organizing efforts of warehouse workers initiated by Change to Win in Riverside and the Imperial Valley of California, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find that to be the case.  Certainly, beating wage theft for home health care workers has been a consistent organizing handle in unionizing such workers who were simply never reimbursed for time and money spent on travel between clients.   Wage theft is often mentioned in the fast food protests and certainly anywhere immigrant workers are organizing.

The prevalence of these cases makes it clear that we have a moment right now, when some of the inequities have become political issues, to push forward against major companies on the issues of wage theft.  At the same time home care workers should remind us all that informal workers without big, fixed workplaces are the most vulnerable where they can be robbed easily in groups of ones and twos.  When big outfits think nothing of robbing with impunity in workplaces holding hundreds and thousands, all of us can imagine the ease with which pockets are picked in smaller and more isolated workplaces.

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