Tag Archives: gig economy

The Predatory Fight to Keep Workers Temporary and “Independent”

Little Rock      Once upon a time we might have been able to look at the Department of Labor to lead the way in drawing the bright lines that establish whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor, regular or temporary.  If that didn’t work, perhaps there might be some way to look at cases before the National Labor Relations Board that were forced to decide whether a worker was regular enough to vote and be part of a bargaining unit or temporary, casual, and out of luck.  Those were the “good” old days.  You know the 1900s.  The twentieth century.  Now, if you want to try and figure this out, especially given the predatory and pernicious way that app-based companies have hired hundreds of thousands of workers and pretended they are all free as birds, you have keep your eye on California, where legislators, regulators, and the public understand how critical this issue is.

California legislators, after years of struggle with the issue, decided once and for all, that gig workers, not just with the giant predators Uber and Lyft, but across the board, were employees, not independent subcontractors.  In California, as opposed to say, Arkansas or Louisiana or most of the lower forty-right, that actually means something.  A worker has some rights.  Higher minimum wage and paid sick days are a good examples, but that’s just where it starts.  The California Labor Code is extensive and gets over the walls and into the workplace and up in a boss’s face with a long list of “do rights.”

Uber, Lyft, Door Dash, and a gazillion others want to pretend they are tech companies and simply a computerized algorithm application that is linking a customer with some Joe or Jane out in the wild blue who wants to provide a service.  Of course, they want you to overlook the fact that they interview and qualify you, insist on what age and condition your vehicle is, set the rates you can charge, and on and on.  In labor unions, we would say that they set the hours, wages, and terms and conditions of employment.  The only thing they arguably don’t do is set the hours.

These companies aren’t happy with the California law.  They tried to make a deal.  They would agree to talk with their workers.  They would do a little of this and that, but, please, Mr. Golden Bear, don’t say the “e” word and make our workers officially “employees” of our companies.  The reason is clear.  Their business model is based on exploiting their workers and not paying minimum wages, social security, medical benefits, or of course any of the costs associated with the worker’s tools, meaning their car, its gas, and condition or the bicycle, scooter or whatever.  They now have raised a $100 million in hopes the voters of California will let them go back to rip-off the workers world.  That’s a long shot, if I were betting.  Californians are the France of America.  They like their benefits.  Who wouldn’t?

Listening to the radio on the road the other day, the absurdity became clear as I listened to one of the companies claim they were going to make a change in their app that would make their drivers more independent.  They were going to let them know if they picked up a fare on Uber how far they would have to go, so they could take it or pass.  My first thought was holy-moly, you mean a driver was clueless before on whether or not the fare was around the corner or miles away.  Sure enough, a driver was interviewed who talked about having landed a fare from Los Angeles to Bakersfield more than a hundred miles away.  He made money going, but then was out of luck on the way back.

A couple of tweaks are not going to change the story out there.  When you’re working for the man, you’re working for the man, whether you can see him through your app or not.  If the company controls the terms and conditions of employment, you’re an employee and entitled to the pluses or pitfalls that come with it.  Period.

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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.

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