Working In These Times

Friday, Sep 13, 2019, 2:48 pm  ·  By Michelle Chen

Hey, Uber and Lyft: Gig Work Is Work. California Just Said So.

Rideshare drivers hold signs during a protest outside of Uber headquarters on August 27, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)  

The rideshare industry seems to have been on an unstoppable tear, running roughshod over regulations, filling the streets with cars, and making astronomical sums of Wall Street capital. But California just tripped up Uber and Lyft’s business model with pioneering legislation to rein in the freewheeling “gig economy.”

The law, Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), passed overwhelmingly in the California Senate this week and is expected to be signed by Governor Gavin Newsom soon. It lays out a clear standard, the so-called “ABC test,” to ensure employers are properly categorizing workers as independent contractors, taking into account how much control the company exerts over their working conditions. Under the law, an independent contractor is defined as a worker with real autonomy: a person who (a) is not directly controlled by the company, (b) does work in the same trade or field independent of that company, and (c) is “independently established” as a proprietor of a separate business in the same sector. Under AB5, if you’re a rideshare driver whose entire livelihood depends on the rides your app funnels into our smartphone every hour, you’re likely an employee under California law.

The ABC test will codify the decision made in a landmark California Supreme Court case last year, Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v. Superior Court of Los Angeles. The Court ruled in favor of delivery service workers who argued they deserved to be classified as employees because they were forced to wear the company’s uniform and display its logo despite being legally deemed “independent.” A major goal of the AB5 legislation is to stop employers' widespread abusive misclassification of workers as independent contractors, in order to deny them regular employment rights and protections, often by insisting that their workers are merely app users.

Once classified as employees under state law, gig workers—not just platform-based workers, but also nail technicians, home-repair workers and dog walkers—would have access to California’s minimum wage, overtime pay, paid rest break, parental leave and workers’ compensation. 

Yet Uber and Lyft both continue to resist AB5, and Uber has even indicated that it does not plan to follow the law once it goes into effect at the start of 2020. The company argues that neither the companies, nor many of their drivers, want to be bound by state labor laws and prefer to drive Uber as a casual side hustle. 

But thousands of drivers are already organizing in California for more power over their working conditions. According to Brian Dolber, an organizer with the California-based Rideshare Drivers United, a fledgling union of 5,000 drivers, AB5 paves the way to formal unionization. But Rideshare Drivers United has not yet decided on what form the union will take. For now, he said, "We're really putting drivers' voices first." Dolber added, "We want to continue organizing drivers and have drivers decide how they want their union to be structured.’ 

Critics of AB5 point to the potential loss of “flexibility” once gig workers are regarded as  employees. However, labor advocates dismiss the flexibility question as concern trolling by the bill’s corporate foes. Nayantara Mehta of the National Employment Law Project argues that current labor laws do not automatically exclude jobs with irregular hours, such as union nurses and construction workers, from being employees. Besides, AB5 deals with the degree of control a company exerts over a worker, not how the schedule is set. “Courts have found that just because a worker has a flexible schedule doesn’t mean she is somehow transformed into the operator of her own business—the true benchmark of independent contractor status,” writes Mehta.

Moreover, the fixation on flexibility elides the reality of many gig jobs. Workers’ schedules may be unstable, but not by choice: Often workers are glued to their phones so they can scramble for whatever rides pop up on their phone, or get paid for each manicure they do or each burger they deliver. Their pay could be so dismal that workers “flex” themselves into exhaustion.

“We drive and we drive and we drive,” said Nicole Moore of Rideshare Drivers United, who helped coordinate a rideshare strike in May. “We don't have dinner with our kids, we don't do all the things that we're supposed to be doing in life. Yet we're expected to pay the rent, we're expected to put food on the table, and try to make a better life for our kids."

This is not the first time Uber’s independent contractor system has been challenged. Various lawsuits in recent months have sought to establish workers' formal employment rights, with mixed results. Uber managed to wriggle out of two lawsuits in March, which together settled for $20 million with 13,600 drivers—but did not address their status as non-employees. Meanwhile, growing efforts to organize rideshare drivers, particularly the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, have helped win increased labor protections at the state and local level, including a minimum wage for drivers in New York City.

Facing the prospect of their payrolls becoming saddled with thousands of brand new workers, gig-company executives are panicking. Uber and Lyft spent a total of about $750,000 lobbying the California legislature, alongside other professional and industry associations that sought exemptions from the law. In the end, Uber and Lyft were not granted the carve-out they were hoping for in the bill, but other trades—including real estate and insurance agents, doctors, engineers, architects and lawyers—were exempted. 

Now Uber, Lyft and DoorDash are reportedly joining forces to fight AB5 using a time-honored California political strategy: investing $90 million on a ballot initiative asking voters to overturn the law and erect a different legal regime for gig workers, which might include some weaker benefits and pay standards.

So the gig economy's leading lights are bent on fighting the law until the bitter end. But in this next round of legal battles, California’s new law, which is based on a Supreme Court ruling and reflects growing public disillusionment with the gig economy titans, might finally put the brakes on the platform economy’s regulatory rollbacks.

Moore is hopeful that the law can help narrow the gulf between Uber executives and drivers. “There's no difference between my humanity and their humanity, sha says, adding: "The basic American agreement is that yes, be innovative, become a millionaire, build your own business, but the American compromise is that you will need to share some of those millions with the people who do the work in your company, so that they can also afford to take a Lyft."

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Thursday, Sep 12, 2019, 3:18 pm  ·  By Rebecca Burns

Amazon Worker: Why We’re Bringing the Climate Strike to Jeff Bezos

CEO and founder of Amazon Jeff Bezos participates in a discussion during a Milestone Celebration dinner September 13, 2018 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)  

Two months after Amazon warehouse workers across the globe staged a one-day strike, the great “disruptor” is facing another workplace disruption—this time by tech workers at its Seattle headquarters.

The group Amazon Employees for Climate Justice announced this week that it would join the September 20 Global Climate Strike led by 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg. The employees are calling on Amazon to commit to zero emissions by 2030, cancel the company’s custom contracts that accelerate gas and oil extraction, and cease funding climate denying lobbyists and politicians.

The last year has seen rank-and-file tech workers walk out over sexual harassment at Google and sales to migrant detention centers by the online retailer Wayfair. Tech workers have also organized a wider movement called #TechWontBuildIt to oppose contracts with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection.

But according to Amazon Employees for Climate Justice, next week’s walkout will be the first one by workers at the company’s corporate offices, as well as the first walkout in the tech industry over the climate crisis. More than 1,000 employees have currently pledged to participate via an online form.

The action grew out of a push by Amazon employees earlier this year to pass a shareholder resolution asking Jeff Bezos to create a comprehensive climate change plan. After a group of workers announced their intention to introduce this resolution, Amazon responded by announcing a “Shipment Zero” program to make 50% of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030. More than 8,000 Amazon employees signed an open letter in April deriding this plan as inadequate and calling on the company to do more.

In May, shareholders voted down the climate resolution, but the group continued organizing as Amazon Employees for Climate Justice (AECJ).

In These Times spoke to Catherine Han, a software developer at Amazon, about the historic walkout and what it’s like to organize tech workers.

Have you been a part of workplace organizing or actions before?

No, this is the first time I’ve been involved in something like this.

How did you get involved in Amazon Employees for Climate Justice?

Environmental stewardship has always been something I was really passionate about. But my involvement had mostly been volunteer work—with different conservancy groups, trail work, things like that. Nothing super formal.

At work, a lot of my coworkers are very environmentally conscious. We would have a lot of conversations about climate change and what we could do, but it was always from a personal standpoint. Joining a group at work hadn’t really occurred to me.

I heard about this group after the shareholders letter announcement last year, and getting involved has been a really eye-opening experience for me. We are bringing a voice to this huge problem that had previously felt like a lot of individual concerns.

Why did the group decide to go on strike?

The call to action for the climate strike really came from the youth who were organizing it. They put out a call to action for a global movement, and we wanted to show solidarity and respond to that call, and also to push Amazon to show climate leadership.

Has it been difficult to get co-workers on board?

There have been a lot of very positive responses and a lot of easy conversations.

I think some of the more negative or hesitant reactions are often from people who are inexperienced with organized action. So it’s just discomfort with the unknown.

I think there’s broad agreement that being a tech worker at one of the most powerful tech companies in the world is an opportunity to raise the visibility of the climate crisis and show what we expect from our leadership.

If we can come together and have a company-wide commitment to get to zero emissions by 2030, that will empower workers to actually come up with the specifics we need to meet that. 

What do you think of Amazon’s response to the climate crisis so far? Your group has pointed out some of the problems with the “Shipment Zero” plan Amazon announced earlier this year. While the company has pledged to make half of its shipments carbon-neutral by 2030, for example, this could still mean a net increase in emissions if shipments continue to grow.

For us, just given the science and the time we have left to make a substantial impact on the trajectory of the climate crisis, Shipment Zero isn’t anywhere near aggressive enough.

The important thing was that this came as a response to the shareholder letter. So one of the biggest takeaways for me was that organized action does work. As the result of the shareholder letter, we saw a positive response from Amazon. For me, that was really empowering to see, and it makes me optimistic about the walkout and the power of that.

Was that the first time you’ve seen the success of collective action?

I really saw the power of organized action a few years ago during the women’s march. I went to the Seattle march and it was one of the first organized actions that I had participated in. Seeing power in numbers was really eye-opening for me.

My experience with the climate change movement within Amazon has been similar. For a lot of people, this is their first time being involved in an organization like this. I think that finding a voice together has been a very transformational experience for a lot of people who have been involved.

Earlier this year, workers across Europe, as well as Minnesota and Chicago, staged coordinated walkouts and other actions on Prime Day. Working conditions in Amazon warehouses are often very bad, and there are a lot of environmental justice issues associated with them—warehouses are more likely to be located in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, and cause air pollution, noise, traffic safety and other issues in the surrounding area.

Do you see the climate organizing you’re doing as related to organizing by warehouse workers?

Amazon Employees for Climate Justice was definitely in support of the strikes. We’re focused on climate justice, and part of the climate crisis is that there is a disproportionate impact on impoverished communities.

We released a solidarity statement that articulates this:

Lending our support to our coworkers in Minnesota is a natural part of our climate justice priorities. We cannot create a sustainable, long-term approach to addressing the climate crisis without addressing structural racial and economic inequities that are part of our system of extraction — of energy, material, and human labor — that have caused the crisis.

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Monday, Sep 9, 2019, 4:26 pm  ·  By Michael Arria

The Next Wave of Labor Unrest Could Be in Grocery Stores

Grocery shopping on new year eve at Fred Meyer on 31 December 2014. (Photo by Francis Dean/Corbis via Getty Images)  

On August 24, members of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555 overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike for 20,000 grocery employees at Safeway, Albertsons, QFC and Fred Meyer locations in the Pacific Northwest. That move came roughly two months after members of the union voted to authorize a strike for about 46,000 grocery employees in southern and central California, and four months after the union declared victory in New England following a successful 11-day strike by Stop & Shop workers.

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Thursday, Sep 5, 2019, 4:33 pm  ·  By Heidi Shierholz

The Future of U.S. Jobs Looks Bleak. Unions Are the Answer.

New data shows a grim outlook for U.S. jobs. The answer is more unions. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)  

We were just handed a wake-up call. Newly released numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics project that six of the ten occupations expected to have the most total job growth over the next decade pay less than $27,000 a year. Three of those six are low-paying jobs in the restaurant industry. Even more striking is the concentration of low-paid healthcare jobs at the top of the list, with personal care aides at number one and home health aides at number four. These jobs are disproportionately held by women and by people of color.

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Monday, Sep 2, 2019, 10:23 am  ·  By Rebecca Burns

From Victories to Union Militancy, 5 Reasons for Workers to Celebrate This Labor Day

Workers have plenty to cheer this labor day. (Photo by Scott Heins/Getty Images)  

Labor Day often gets short shrift as a worker’s holiday. Marked primarily by sales on patio furniture and mattresses, the day also has a more muddled history than May Day, which stands for internationalism and solidarity among the working class. Labor Day, by contrast, was declared a federal holiday in 1894 by President Grover Cleveland, fresh off his administration’s violent suppression of the Pullman railroad strike.

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Wednesday, Aug 28, 2019, 10:19 am  ·  By Ella Fassler

For Incarcerated Workers, Summer Heat Can Be a Death Sentence

PICACHO, AZ - JUNE 27: People incarcerated at Picacho State Prison work at LBJ Farms pitching watermelons for $2 per hour. (Photo by Nicole Hill/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)  

ABILENE, TEXAS—Temperatures reached 97 degrees on June 21 at the French Robinson Unit prison the day Seth Donnelly collapsedThe Texas Observer reported Seth passed out during his prison job of training attack dogs—running around in a 75-pound “fight suit” while the dogs tried to bite him. Seth’s internal body temperature was 106 when he reached the hospital, where doctors eventually took him off life support. He died on June 23, and his preliminary autopsy lists multiorgan failure following severe hyperthermia.

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Monday, Aug 26, 2019, 3:59 pm  ·  By Rachel M. Cohen

8 Unions Have a Plan for Climate Action—But It Doesn’t Mention Fighting the Fossil Fuel Industry

Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) union workers with SEIU Local 1021 hold signs as they picket in front of the Lake Merritt station on July 2, 2013 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)  

On June 24, the BlueGreen Alliance—a national coalition which includes eight large labor unions and six influential environmental groups—released an eight-page document laying out its vision to curb climate change and reduce inequality. The report, dubbed Solidarity for Climate Action, marks a significant development in the world of environmental politics. It argues the needs of working people must be front-and-center as the U.S. responds to climate change, and rejects the “false choice” between economic security and a healthy planet.

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Thursday, Aug 22, 2019, 10:14 am  ·  By Shaun Richman

Bernie Sanders’ Labor Plan Could Put a Union in Every Workplace in America

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at an AFSCME rally speaks in support of the Employee Free Choice Act in the Upper Senate Park on Tuesday, June 19, 2007. (Photo By Philip Scott Andrews/Roll Call/Getty Images)  

Bernie Sanders released his Workplace Democracy Plan on Wednesday. His campaign’s labor platform makes the strongest case of any of the candidates so far that he would be unions’ best ally in the White House in generations.

At a time when the Democrats’ official labor law reform proposal, the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, would essentially overturn the anti-union Taft-Hartley Act, the race to the left for labor’s support in the primaries demands bolder policies. Bernie Sanders does not disappoint.

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Wednesday, Aug 14, 2019, 4:28 pm  ·  By Kayla Blado

The Answer To Burnout At Work Isn’t “Self-Care”—It’s Unionizing

Workers at nonprofits often experience overwork and burnout. The answer is a union. (Getty Images)  

It’s Monday morning and your alarm goes off. As you wake up, the dread of going to work creeps in. You’re feeling exhausted, stressed out, underpaid and underappreciated. It's a mindset you can’t shake, and no amount of coffee will fix: You have workplace burnout.

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Tuesday, Aug 13, 2019, 12:52 pm  ·  By Jeremy Mohler

What Uber and the Koch Brothers Have in Common: A Plan to Destroy Public Transit

Apparently, supplanting the taxi industry wasn't enough. Now the corporate giants want to take out public transit. (Kike Calvo/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)  

At first glance, the rideshare corporation Uber couldn’t appear more different than conservative oil-mogul billionaires Charles G. and David H. Koch. Uber has hired numerous former Democratic Party campaign managers and lobbyists and the company’s CEO, Dara Khosrowshahi, has publicly criticized the Trump administration, including over the travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries. The Kochs, meanwhile, have gained a reputation for bankrolling the Republican Party.

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