The Fight for Employment Status for App-workers Broadens

Amsterdam      The Department of Labor under the Trump administration is doing all it can to assure app-based tech companies from Uber, Deliveroo, and others that they will bend over backwards to shield them from classification as directly employed workers rather than independent subcontracts.  Government agencies in an even greater acrobatic twist in the US are saying that they will give employers a “free pass” if they misclassify workers as subcontractors, seemingly encouraging them to do so until caught without making proper payments for taxes and benefits.

California once again acting as the bulwark against such offenses despite being the home state of many of the tech giants specializing in play-pretend work practices around the fiction of independent contracts is on the verge of passing a bill that would clearly determine such workers to be employees rather than contractors.  Besides the Ubers, Lyfts, and wannabes hiding behind apps, it is well known that Google, Facebook, and the rest work hundreds of thousands of contract workers side by side with regular employees in order to save money and keep them out of employment status and benefits.   The companies are playing hardball and threatening to raise $20 million to put any law that is passed on the ballot to California voters to overturn it.  I haven’t seen the polling, but regardless of the tech war chest, I would bet the odds are not naturally in their favor.

This isn’t just a domestic issue, and the going may be rougher in fact elsewhere in the world.  Sitting with colleagues in Amsterdam in preparation for a more extensive meeting, one told how taxi strikes had pushed Uber out of Barcelona recently when they visited and talked to local activists in Spain.

An official from the Netherlands Trade Union Federation (FNV), the largest union in the Netherlands, had successfully engaged Deliveroo and its delivery driver exploitation.  In Netherlands, achieving a certain threshold, unions are able to negotiate collective labor agreements for entire sectors.  FNV argued that delivery was covered under their sector agreements for retail and warehousing.  The government had stalled, claiming the need for study and saying it was complicated.  FNV sued and easily won the case.  The government is still foot dragging he reported, and Deliveroo has challenged the ruling in their own suit, but right now the union clearly has the whip hand and is using it well.

In Mumbai, India, these delivery operations both international like Deliveroo and locally-based are facing a different kind of problem.  Smaller restaurants are banning together and striking in their words by refusing to accept orders.  Their issue is the exorbitant fees, often 25%, being charged by the delivery companies for their service which are forcing the food establishments to lose money on every order.  Our own social enterprise, Fair Grinds Coffeehouse, walked away from all delivery inquiries after a one-month trial with Uber Eats that quickly convinced us that there was no way it benefited the coffeehouse, workers or anyone but the Uber people.

The business model seems predicated on worker exploitation to save money and sourcing exploitation on unprovable claims of customer expansion.  Customers may enjoy transitory cost savings and convenience, but the model ultimately seems unsustainable when based on such sinking sand.

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Sorting Out French Labor Law – What a Country!

Plaza in Grenoble
Plaza in Grenoble

Paris   Finishing up my hella-Euro-road trip as the heat hit the 90’s in Grenoble and Paris, I felt like I was catching the last train out of town before the whole country – and in fairness, most of Europe – shut down for the rest of the summer. You notice the small signs when almost every follow-up email is greeted with an auto-return saying, I’ll be back in mid-August or more likely August 29th. Meeting with the Alliance and ReAct staff before leaving Grenoble, my bags were packed, but so, seemingly were many of theirs. Hitting Paris in the attic loft where I stay I had four pages of instructions on how to make sure the house was closed tighter than a drum because they would be out for weeks. Every meeting, ended as we’ll follow up in September. Fascinating! After years of experience with the summer months as primetime for organizing, the notion that I had woken up somewhere between Christmas and New Year’s except it was hotter here! But, hey, viva la difference!

church in Brussels plaza
church in Brussels plaza

I used to write some “notes for my father” on things that he would have found fascinating from my trips abroad, but this time I felt I needed to write a note to myself after the head organizer of ACORN’s French affiliate gave me a short course of French labor law and how it caged organizing and field programs. All staff has a contract. The contracts can be short term for 6 or 12 months, but after several of these short stints, the law requires employees be made permanent or released. Or of course the Holy Grail for workers occurs when you might finally receive an open ended permanent contract. Annually, the head organizer has to do a formal evaluation with the staff members as part of the renegotiation of these contracts. Describing the process, it is definitely a negotiation. Where previously she might have negotiated full time hours from 35 which is the standard work week in France to 39 by paying the premium for those extra hours, staff can propose to go back to 35 and can even make proposals on the content of the work, which for organizers might even mean having to discuss nonnegotiable issues like time on the doors or the number of groups maintained by an organizer. It just takes your breath away! But, as I overheard an organizer in Paris say about the government’s attempts to modify some of these labor laws, “we can’t give away what our grandfathers fought for and won.” Well, you put it like that…

On the other hand, managers may have contracts but in exchange for the discretion and professionalism of their jobs, there is no restriction on their hours, and different than in the United States, this is regardless of the amount they are paid. At the ACORN affiliate everyone is on a minimum contract whether short term or open ended at this point, meaning they are paid a minimum wage as set by French law. The minimum wage in France is set at the after tax rate which is a good thing and is indexed to inflation and/or legislative action so goes up annually, which is also a good thing. Once you sort it all out it was about equivalent to what ACORN’s starting wage was for all staff about a decade ago, so not bad at all really in terms of a living wage.

church in Budapest
Danube in Dusseldorf

This minimum contract is not unusual and sometimes even includes a period where a new employee is paid by social benefits the first year and then in direct wages the second. I happened to meet the head of the ATD-Fourth World in France, which is their largest operation for the social services and organizing operation for the poor. All one-hundred of their fulltime staff, who they call volunteers, are paid on a minimum contract, which is interesting when we think about what it takes to build community organizations and unions of lower income and lower waged workers.

The package, as we call it in collective bargaining, is great in France as the country shuts down for the season over the coming weeks, but once you add it all up, backwards and forwards, it may be a maze to navigate, but there’s still a way to get there from here.

Country roads, take me home!

Danube in Dusseldorf
Church in Budapest
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