Sweating Labor in the Gig Economy and People by Tech

Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

New Orleans      In a piece about climate change, one author quoted a commonplace statement that the corporate business model in a capitalist economy puts no inherent value on public resources like land, air, and water, so that the costs are for acquisition, extraction, marketing, and delivery without concern for the after affects like global warming, downstream water or air pollution, and the like.  The burden then falls on the commons, the public, and the government to force regulation or cost recovery, often too little and too late, especially when wealth is increasingly concentrated, and people with lesser income cannot afford the price of restoration.

I’m really not talking about climate change though.  It seems to be that within that business model, app-based and other tech companies fit squarely, if we add people themselves as a natural resource in the same list with land, air, and water, and likely even valued less by many.

Take the business model for Facebook and the rest of the tech companies that is based on selling people’s privacy for their own and corporate billions without paying anything for it, and without being accountable or, until very recently, worrying about the consequences.   Take as another example the continued resistance to dealing with the ubiquitous consequences of enslaving millions that still reverberates throughout every level of the American economy and culture.  Democratic presidential candidates are quick to agree to study reparations, but take my word, oil companies will pay for climate change and Facebook will give us a residual payment on using and selling our data way before reparations are paid for slavery.

In the run up to Uber going public, the company offered a slightly lower opening price valuation than investors had placed on it privately, because they continue to lose literally billions.  A sidebar noted that like Lyft, the company has said they might pay between $100 and $10,000 to longtime drivers, that they don’t acknowledge as employees by paying benefits, social security or unemployment or anything else, but increasingly are finding it harder and harder to recruit in a tight employment market.  Here is another business model that tries to sweat a common resource, people, without paying in order to extract rents or excess profits from their labor for free.  There was a long story of a fulltime driver for Uber and sometimes Lyft in the Bay Area who was barely making it because despite his share of the fares, the fact that he was classified as an independent contractor though totally dependent on the company and their arbitrary division of income, he had to pay all the cost for the vehicle, gas, and maintenance which was clearly unsustainable.

This problem is global as well.  An organizer in Buenos Aires shared with me this week the embryonic efforts to organize personas de platformas or gig workers there.  We have organized multi-union and multinational meetings of bicycle delivery drivers in Europe, but everywhere the organizing problem continues to be the lack of leverage.

Air, water, and land are voiceless.  In modern economic labor, people doing the work are becoming as voiceless as the clickers and likers on social media.  Simply another natural resource to be exploited for as long as they can get away with it.  None of this is sustainable, but stopping it is another matter.


Negotiations Skills are Learned not Natural

New Orleans     After days of work on campaigns and the principles of negotiations, the leaders of Amani United in Milwaukee were ready to practice what they had learned.  The leaders divided into two groups, one representing the officials of the city’s transportation system and the other representing Amani United.  The issue at hand was a proposal by the city to reroute bus #80 which is a lifeline for the neighborhood to downtown, work locations, grocery, health and other services.

Negotiation skills don’t natural to people.  Rage is natural, while wisdom is earned, especially when it comes to making a case and winning from a position of relative powerlessness.  People would like to get along. People would like to believe their voice is important and heard, that their issues and interest matter.  Even when they know better, the natural tendency is to try to be reasonable.  And, then if that doesn’t work, the rage kicks in and becomes something that is no longer a tactic, but something uncontrollable.

We happened to have a camera on part of the role play, and it’s instructive even when it starts out shaky in the beginning as the tripod finds its footing, as anyone can see on the YouTube video on the ACORN International channel.

            The Amani team begins formally, but despite their preparations seeks a middle ground by asking questions of the official team, rather than clearly stating the position relative to their members or their demands.  The official’s team, very realistically, recalibrates what Amani had hoped was a negotiation over the route to just another input session where they didn’t have any authority to act, but were simply sponging up the anger.   Also, realistically, despite the commitments to have a chief negotiator and call caucuses, both committees fell back into old habits quickly allowing a free-for-all of back and forth to divert any hopes of the Amani team to win anything here.

After a break to get back on track in the first video, the second video shows a whole different approach.  This time the Amani team is more formal.  Question time is over, and left for the British Parliament.  Demands are more clearly stated, and the response is awaited.  The transportation team responds well by trying to deflate the demands as “valid questions” and when pressed over their authority to negotiate offers to refer what the committee demands to bigger bosses by giving them his phone number.  It’s on!

People learn quickly, and practice makes perfect.  I found myself laughing earlier in the meeting when there was some confusion and the acting chair didn’t call for quiet, but called CAUCUS.