The Expropriation of Community Organizing Techniques by the Gig Economy

Philadelphia  Every once in a while I run into something scary, not because it has to do with nuclear meltdowns or corrupt mortgage brokers or community-and-family killing slumlords, all of which are real things. I am also seriously concerned when there is an expropriation of the good for purposes of the evil. These are times when we are drowning in such amazing doublespeak that we are pinching ourselves in order to snap out of “1984” moments becoming our reality.

This is now common currency in politics. Terrible health care is now touted as great. Proposing to eviscerate social programs to provide the rich with a tax break is now packaged as a jobs program for working families. Turning the dial back to the 1950s on women, the environment, race, and a hundred other things is whitewashed as patriotism. It goes on and on.

It happens even in community organizing, most dramatically as Saul Alinsky and his Rules for Radicals became repurposed by the right as a model for their vicious tactics. Recently, reading a New Yorker article about the gig economy, it was disturbing to drop down the wormhole and see it happening again in a discussion of the organizing tactics of the ride-sharing service, Lyft, the Avis to the Uber, Hertz.

The author, Nathan Heller, was interviewing Emily Castor, who he described as the company’s “leader in the campaign against regulatory constraint.” She said, “We’re borrowing very heavily from traditional community-organizing models, and looking at the grass roots in each city…Who are the leaders? Who are the people who distinguish themselves as passionate, who want to get more involved? We have a team that includes field organizers who are responsible for different parts of the country.” Well, I don’t know if this is traditional or even community organizing. She is essentially talking about building a base, a customer base, and maybe in an Obama-moment she decided to slap “community organizing” on the hood as she drove around.

But, then she dove deeper into something that is hardly traditional and remains controversial, and threw logs on that fire without any sense that the temperature might be rising. Hired by Lyft as their first “community manager,” whatever doublespeak that might portend, the article goes,

“She found that she could draw on her political training. ‘Collective identity is one of those aspects that, in the theory of social movements, is so important…You’re not just ‘taking rides.’”

Then, Marshall Ganz, former UFW organizer and now Harvard Kennedy School instructor, gets drawn into this with his “story of self, a story of us, a story of now: the collective-identity movement-building method.”

For all of the utility of Ganz’ stories, it is essentially a mobilization model, rather than a community organizing or community building model, which is why it has been so embraced by political campaigns, and now it seems even by businesses that may be about the very opposite of community organizing values. Ganz objects to Lyft’s appropriation arguing that markets are all about exchange and finding a common purpose is what politics is about, but even while reading his distinction, it’s way too easy to see why Lyft and its organizers, thought they could just take the tools and run with them their way, since for them finding a “common purpose” is what triggers their market and its financial exchange.


On-Demand Uber and Lyft Fiction Going Down in the Courts

Uber ad against Lyft
Uber ad against Lyft

New Orleans               The simple standard for workers when asked the question “Who do you work for?” is clear. If a worker answers, myself, then maybe they are an independent contractor.  If they answer Uber or Lyft or any other company, then it’s pretty clear they are employees.

All indications are that it will not be California dreaming, but real worker reality since this continues to be the bright line test for the fictional “on-demand” outlaw taxi-chauffer employers like Uber and Lyft as district court judges hear their rationalizations in California for separate and special treatment.  All reports from the initial hearings indicate that the judges were very skeptical of the make-believe arguments from the companies and expressed the likelihood that they will allow class action suits in California to go forward establishing the employment status for the workers who are seeking reimbursement for their out-of-pocket costs like gas, car repairs, and car insurance in working for these outfits.

Lawyers for the workers put on evidence on rules and regulations they are required to follow to act as drivers for the company, along with the ways and means that they can be terminated for passenger ratings and other so-called offenses, just like other workers for other companies.   Lyft drivers seem to be required to fist-bump folks as they get in their cars.  Uber drivers can be terminated or “deactivated” in the company’s words if their passenger ratings fall below 4.5 on a 5 point scale.

Both companies, but particularly Uber, have quickly acquired a global reputation for arrogance and law breaking that has led a number of cities and even countries like Spain and France to bar them from operating in their jurisdictions.   They have flaunted local licensing procedures for drivers and been scofflaws about everything from local fees to assuming the liability for accidents on their insurance rather than the personal insurance of the drivers, creating an unfair competition with taxi companies and drivers forced to obey the rules of the road.

From what can be gathered about the Uber/Lyft company arguments in the labor cases, they stayed true to form and argued that the labor laws were “outdated” and shouldn’t apply to them.  God knows some of that’s probably true about needing some upgrade and update on labor laws, but not for the reasons they argued.  The heart of their position was really not the age of the labor laws but the fact that they just really don’t want the laws to apply to them at all.  Libertarianism gone wild!

They want to pretend they are tech outfits and simply “app” companies that license an app that allows customers to find drivers.  If that were really true then any of us who wanted to give rides to strangers could buy or license the app if we wanted to do so, just like a GPS system for a car and be done with the companies and go out on the streets merry as we could be.  In such a situation, these outfits would just be robot dispatchers rather the gruff voiced guys many of us can remember calling taxi companies.  They would be empowering us all to be people movers, and we would have to deal with the cities and the laws as we saw fit and face the consequences accordingly.

But, that’s not how they work at all or why the stock market has valued Uber at so many billions of dollars.  They have rules.  They effectively hire and fire.  And just like real employers everywhere, they scam and exploit their workers mercilessly while they laugh all the way to the bank, which is why we have labor laws, and why the rubber has to hit the road and puncture this on-demand myth for once and all.


Please enjoy Diana Krall (featuring Michael Buble’) Alone Again (Naturally) from Krall’s new album Wallflower


A faster pace song, The Pink Flamingos Things I Never Said – All Thanks to Kabf.