Gig Economy Promoters Drinking Their Own Kool-Aid

Los Angeles     There has been a lot of talk in recent years about the explosion of the so-called “gig” economy and whether its growth foretells the future of work for Americans.  Such a future would mean a series of part-time jobs, no clear employer or employment status, skimpy to non-existent benefits and a narrow path to sustainable work for millions.  Some think that the growth of such jobs would be plentiful enough to substitute for automation and deindustrialization.  Other have argued that a universal basic income needs to supplement the availability of such work in order to create sustainability.

No one ever really knows the future, but it’s always worth some amount of worry, especially when it comes to work.  When it comes to the gig economy though a recent report by Lawrence Mishel of the respected, DC-based Economic Policy Institute lays out a comprehensive case that those soothsayers arguing that the gig economy is the future are basically drinking their own Kool-Aid at least when it comes to its current impact on employment.

The EPI report looks most carefully at recent data on Uber drivers and their incomes.  The bottom line is that Mishel found that once all expenses, commissions, and benefit costs were factored in, an Uber driver was lucky to average $9.21 per hour.  When converting the number of part-time and some time almost 850,000 Uber drivers, Mishel was only able to convert about 90,000 into full-time equivalents.  Factoring in other studies that put the impact of Uber on total gig economy at about two-thirds, the role of gig work in overall US employment was a relatively miniscule 0.1%.  That’s not nothing, but it certainly doesn’t convincingly lay claim to portending the future of work past pure speculation.

Mishel brings his argument to a sharp point on the academic side, saying,

These findings—and the fact that many Uber and other workers who provide personal services via a digital platform do so on a part-time basis primarily as a way to earn supplementary income—argue for a change in perspective. There has been much hype around Uber and the gig economy. But in our assessment, in any conference on the future of work, Uber and the gig economy deserve at most a workshop, not a plenary.

If at best it’s only worth a workshop for economists, it’s hardly worth a full beer’s worth of discussion for labor organizers.

Informal, contingent, and temporary employment, no matter what they are called in the less than full-time service economy continues to give huge definition to global and domestic employment.  These are challenges worth the full-time struggle and effort.  Gig employers seeking special favors from legislators and money from investors to allow them free rein over workers have clear interests in promoting themselves as the future of work and everything else, but the rest of us need to brush off their special pleadings and keep our eyes on creating winning strategies for workers struggling now to build power in an array of real jobs in the current economy.

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Crossing Paths with Clean Water Action

Clean Water Action founder and Twin Cities resident David Zwick signs a letter to President Bush for the 30th anniversary of the Clean Water Act in 2002. Zwick died Monday, Feb. 5., 2018, in Minneapolis. (Courtesy of Clean Water Action)

New Orleans   It isn’t exactly the answer to a popular trivia question, but there might be some head scratching by outsiders, someone from Mars, or an earnest future researcher trying to puzzle out an answer to the question of how a multi-year and multi-layered partnership developed between ACORN and Clean Water Action.  As always, there’s a story behind it all seeped as much by design as simple good luck and happy coincidence.

Clean Water Action was – and still is – the organization that grew out of the fight for the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974 that established most of the protection for water and water sources that we still enjoy and defend against corporate assault and public authorities’ inattention.  The stick stirring a lot of that drink had been David Zwick, an early Nadar Raider, and the founder and executive director of Clean Water Action.

Our paths crossed in 1992 as Local 100 expanded to Texas to organize school support workers in the wake of Governor Anne Richards signing a bill that allowed school workers personal decisions to mandatorily force local school districts to honor their request to join a union and have their dues deducted from their pay checks.  This is the same law that is regularly under constant legislative attack now in Texas.  We moved quickly and had to hire a lot of people to do a lot of jobs.  Mostly Orell Fitzsimmons and I hired organizers, but the drives involved mailing and phone banking lists of thousands that triggered home visits and membership recruitment.  We hired a woman named Wendy Weingarten to manage the chaos of paper and data.  I don’t remember Wendy having much background in that area, but she impressed us as committed and confident, and she became the tourniquet that we applied to that gaping wound.

Working closely day by day and juggling the work with Wendy and her schedule and her growing family, the layers of her life also became clear, and that meant meeting her husband, David Zwick and coming to know Clean Water Action.  David and Wendy had somehow made the decision to move and relocate to Houston for multiple reasons, but one was Zwick’s insightful conviction that a major battleground over clean water was Texas.  He opened an office of sorts to keep up with his national responsibilities not far from our building in the Heights.

Year End/Year Begin meetings were always mandatory in the ACORN family of organizations and that meant Wendy’s attendance was also required, and that David would be around with kids in tow as well.  David, quiet and without comment, because of our respect for his work at Clean Water became the first ever outsider ever allowed to attend a YE/YB.  In the days when everyone there was also asked to evaluate the meeting, David finally spoke, gracefully, about how much he appreciated being allowed to attend and how much he had learned.

A few miles away from our Heights office, Clean Water had another location that housed their local canvass program and its various staffing a couple of miles away where we introduced ACORN and Local 100’s work to their crew briefings.  Having shut down ACORN’s canvass in the mid-1980s, we were intrigued that their canvass was still sufficient to support their work.  The Clean Water canvass was run under contract by something called CCI, much like our own CCI.  We had them run canvasses for us in Austin and Dallas among other cities for some years trying to see if we could make it work.  Last summer as Chaco and I pulled the trailer out of Missoula, Montana to its new home in Manderson, Wyoming, we had a farewell dinner and talked about the small world with my old comrade and friend from Northern Plains Resource Council days, Tom France, and his partner, Meg Haan, who had run our joint operation in Austin back in those days.

I was reminded of all these times and Dave Zwick and his quiet dignity, great contributions, and our thoughtful conversations, as I stumbled on the obituary about his untimely death while reading old newspapers piled and waiting from endless days of travel.

Warriors fall, but the battles are constant and continue.  We honor them still!

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