On-Demand Economy, “Utter Nonsense,” and Unequal Negotiation

How-to-Make-Money-Driving-for-Uber-or-Lyft-e1414532059475New Orleans               When we affiliated with SEIU initially in 1984, the one condition imposed on our local union in New Orleans was that we not organize the city police.  They had had a bad experience with a group they had tried to affiliate then had gone rouge and struck to hold Mardi Gras hostage.  No problem, I had said.  I’m not a fan of organizing prison guards either.  They run hot and cold in packs, all in, or all out with a culture that confounds most organizational systems where you lack exit barriers.  Having organized taxi drivers in both New Orleans and Dallas over the years, I also argue we should pass when they knock on our doors.   They are always angry, never make enough money, are too cliquey, and have too many “leaders” working with what my ACORN India colleague refers to as the “feudal” model.  My admiration for the work of the New York-based and expanding taxi workers’ union and its organizers is boundless!

Having said all that though, I’m not a fan of Uber, and not just because of its arrogance and smart-aleck style.  Its fans and investors in the business community as well an increasing number of city governments and countries will force them to grow up sooner or later.  I just don’t like their business model.  Despite the fact that the taxi industry is admittedly chaotic, anarchistic, and exploitative of its drivers, and you might say were “asking for it,” Uber, as the valueless, unprincipled middle-man, has managed to take exploitation of workers to a new, lower level.  Unlicensed and regulated drivers with their own cars, carrying the liability with their own insurance, and waiting for a call, is hardly a public good for transit or the workers.  Jitney drivers in Brooklyn and matatu drivers in Nairobi suddenly seem like better deals offering more stable routes and employment!

In what some are calling the “on-demand” model, this is a business model which creates an illusion of worker independence but a reality of permanent, part-time, informal employment with virtually all of the risks held by the workers and none by the middle-man or the consumer.  A Times columnist claimed, “…it may relegate the idea of establishing a lifetime career to a distant memory.”  Yikes!  Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor under President Clinton hits the nail on the head responding that such notions are “nonsense, utter nonsense.  This on-demand economy means a work life that is unpredictable, doesn’t pay very well, and is terribly insecure.”

Years ago when organizing carriage drivers in the French Quarter with our union, I listened to the drivers argue at union meetings about whether they were working “a job or a hustle,” and this so-called on-demand economy reminds me of that argument.  Consumers love its convenience and often lower pricing, but what’s the end game for the workers?  Who does the clean up when today’s party is over?  No social security payments, no health insurance, no retirement plans, no security.  What happens when these workers can’t keep their cars on the road or become too sick or too old to work?  As the techies count their stock holdings, is the government going to step up its game and make all of this “disruption” right for the workers without lifelong careers?

Portfolio workers are the modern day bindlestiffs going from harvest to harvest on the rails or they are modern day handymen who may be high-skilled freelancers and temps, but end up as jacks of all trades and masters of none.  The answer to the argument on the on-demand economy is straightforward:  this is a hustle, not a job.  The life lesson and one that both corporate chieftains and public policy wizards need to remember and embrace is also simple:  no hustle lasts forever.  That’s painfully true for the workers, and eventually will be true for the Ubers as well.

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