Uberization and Organizing

IG Metall Rally

Milan       In Europe there is increasing interest – and concern – over what is called the “uberization” of the economy, named after the ubiquitous and controversial US-based, but globally operating, Uber ride-sharing application.  A French parliamentarian used the expression in a communication in recent days.  Talking to a union organizer in the Netherlands, he told me of efforts in Germany to try to organize gig workers as one of several dozen campaigns being undertaken by the giant union Ver.di in that country.

Researchers are clear that it is starting to be a sizeable enough part of the workforce in Europe that it is worth attention.  A 2018 report by researchers Stefan Dietl and Kathrin Birner on the efforts of German unions, tried to get a sense of the scale of employment in this area, saying,

Few data is available on the actual dimension of crowdwork and gig work. An ILO study on crowdwork and gig work cites calculations assuming about 220,000 transportation gig workers internationally, almost 7 million care workers, and over 14 million working as clickworkers worldwide (De Stefano 2016). Experts estimate there are between 200,000 and 1 million click workers in Germany, between 1 and 12 per cent of the European working population (Pesole et. al. 2018; Bonin and Rinne 2017; Huws et al. 2017). A governmentally financed study on the platform economy estimates that up to 5 per cent of eligible voters perform crowd and gig work (Serfling 2018) and the Federal Ministery of Labor and Social Affairs assumes that a third out of these 5 per cent work only offline (gig work), a fifth only online (crowdwork), and the rest perform online and offline tasks2. With 61,9 million eligible voters as of 2017, 5 per cent results in 3,09 million crowd and gig workers, with at least one million working in gig work and at least 618,000 as pure crowdworkers.

Independent unions were created for delivery workers in several German cities, along with the election of works councils in some cases.  Deliveroo and others ended up defeating the works council effort by steadily cancelling the actual contracts for some of their delivery workers so that the workforce was all self-employed.  German courts ruled the efforts illegal, but like in the USA, the damage was done.

Interestingly IG-Metall in Germany, one of the largest unions in the world, opened their membership up to informal and self-employed workers in 2015.  Their size and strength showed signs of some success.  The researchers noted in their report that,

The campaign put enough pressure on the eight biggest German platforms so that these signed a “Code of Conduct“ affecting 2 million users. The “Code of Conduct“ sets minimum standards and includes regulations on fair payment, reasonable timing, and transparency.

These are early stage efforts, but they are showing some strength.  A similar story on the museum and art workers also shows some stirring in the USA from unexpected quarters:

Museum workers are organizing.  the fight against income inequality has taken hold in their world, with curators, handlers and designers publicly pressuring executives to raise their wages, and in some cases forming unions. The workers said they had been inspired by recent union drives at media companies and among graduate students, and their efforts even echo the #MeToo movement in its use of Google Doc crowdsourcing. In one widely shared spreadsheet, arts workers are anonymously posting their job titles and salaries, alongside those of museum officials who in certain cases are making eight times as much as some curators.

We need to follow all of this closely, wherever it pops up!


Please enjoy Midnight Sun from Calexico and Iron & Wine.

Thanks to KABF.


Hong Kong Teaches Risks in Social Media Mobilization

Protesters attend a demonstration demanding Hong Kong’s leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, China, June 16, 2019. REUTERS/Tyrone Siu – RC12BDB5C070

New Orleans       Don’t get me wrong.  Any group of organizers that can pull the trigger and pull out hundreds of thousands, then a million, and then possibly two million protestors on the streets out of a total population of seven million deserve wild praise and total respect.  Such organizers can teach all of us a huge amount about how to do our work and make a difference.  All of which makes it worth following closely the courageous campaign in the autonomous province of Hong Kong to block the order from the central Chinese government to extradite individuals charged with a crime to the mainland for trial, undercutting the Hong Kong judicial system and the self-government of Hong Kong, and potentially its base as a commercial and banking center as well.

Even if you have no interest in the issue, the technical lessons are worth careful study. Undoubtedly social media tools were critical implements to the mobilization, but one of the key lessons involves the perils of relying on social media for both organizers and participants unless precautions are taken.

A secure messaging application popular there called Telegram was bombarded by China in a DDos or denial-of-service attack by multiple computers meant to overwhelm the site with high volume traffic and put it out of business.  The apps founder, Pavel Durov, was quoted saying this kind of attack on Telegram was not unusual.  The New York Times reported that a monitor of a Telegram chat room with 20,000 members was arrested by Hong Kong police even though he was not part of the demonstrations and was in fact miles away at his own home.

The police are using digital tools to track protestors and identify organizers, including facial recognition capabilities, that police are also advocating for wide use in Europe and the United States. Protestors are shielding their faces with masks, hats, and glasses to prevent easy identification that could be used for arrests by police later.  On the mainland, the government often stops protests preemptively by monitoring social media.

Telegram does not have what is called end-to-end encryption on their chat rooms, which the even more popular and widely used WhatsApp has.  Protest organizers have resorted to VPN networks and pay-as-you-go SIM cards and have registered foreign and Google numbers to enter chat rooms or communicate.  To skirt WhatsApp encryption, malware disguised as an app has been found phishing users that the Times reported was likely for spying on organizers.

Protestors have been advised to buy individual tickets on the subway so that digital payment cards would not be tracked.  They have tried to stop people from taking photos of the protests or selfies since once they show up on the internet, they might lead to identification and arrests.

At ACORN, we used to constantly warn, “if you live by the press, you will die by the press,” to underline the principle that the face-to-face work in the streets and neighborhoods was our lifeblood and would keep people together whether the press was good or bad about an action or the organization.  Live by the internet and social media, you die by the internet and social media might be the warning worth heeding from the lessons on the streets of Hong Kong for organizers everywhere.