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Working In These Times

Wednesday, May 18, 2016, 10:00 am

Can Labor Learn from Silicon Valley?

BY Michelle Chen

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Facing constant-labor scrutiny, Airbnb tries to partner with top unions.   (Open Grid Scheduler/Grid Engine / Flickr/ Creative Commons)

If the gig economy is so hot, why is a good gig still so hard to come by? The sharing economy's new breed of on-demand jobs—a charismatic blend of the consumer economy and libertarian corporate culture, festooned with digital bells and whistles and sophisticated data tracking—attracts equal parts fascination and revulsion as the “future of work.”

Labor has become an uneasy bedfellow of the sharopoly of late. Last month, SEIU drew outrage from other unions and community groups who learned through an apparent leak that the union was negotiating a “partnership” with the quasi-hotelier Airbnb. According to reporting in The Washington Post, under the terms of the deal Airbnb would have encouraged its hosts to contract housekeeping services through a union-affiliated worker cooperative. The problem was not that SEIU was linking housekeepers to good union jobs (providing a $15 hourly wage to boot) but that the union would be implicated in a business model that many see as fueling the gentrification of working-class communities. After fierce criticism from the hotel union Unite Here and tenants’ organizations in San Francisco and New York, where Airbnb has a heavy presence, SEIU reportedly backed down a few days after news broke of the tentative agreement.

Similarly, Uber’s announcement of a new “drivers’ association” earlier this month evoked deep skepticism among some labor advocates. The result of a massive legal settlement over compensation for drivers, the new “independent drivers guild” has raised alarms about management-friendly faux unionism. It is emphatically not a union but an “online resource center” for certain services and insurance benefits, according to Uber. The association, created through an affiliation with the Machinists union, will also offer a nominal grievance process for drivers “deactivated”—that is, digitally terminated by the company—without due process. But it’s unclear whether workers will have any actual leverage within this organization. The announcement drew backlash from the Teamsters union, which is attempting to organize drivers separately as an actual union in Seattle and California.

“If you were to look at that from a traditional union’s point of view, you would think, ‘How is it good that the employer is facilitating the establishment of the worker association?’” asked Rome Aloise, vice president of the Teamsters union, in an interview with The Huffington Post.

Critics of these ventures contend that powerful corporations are merely attempting to whitewash their operations using labor’s street cred.  Startup moguls of the sharing economy market their concepts as friendly interactions between consumers—sharing a spare bedroom (in an up-and-coming Brooklyn neighborhood crawling with mass evictions), or a pleasant shared ride to the airport (in which a quarter of the price gets skimmed by a faceless app). A union partnership with Airbnb would be particularly ironic, critics pointed out, given that its corporate predation actually eats into the social fabric of the same communities where many of these drivers and housekeepers are struggling to keep pace with soaring rents. Airbnb has also incurred the wrath of local politicians (and a number of lawsuits) and affordable-housing groups that denounce the company for skirting tax laws and hospitality-industry regulations.

Nevertheless, could the entrepreneurial zeal of Silicon Valley offer lessons for a sputtering labor movement, as labor leaders like SEIU's David Rolf have advised a rising generation of organizers Can the platform be hacked to help workers break free from asymmetrical corporate structures?

Uber drivers are already revolting from within—bristling at low compensation rates and their classification as “independent contractors,” which denies them the rights and protections afforded to regular employees under federal law. Last year, Seattle passed a first-of-its-kind ordinance allowing Uber and other contract drivers to unionize, and the Teamsters’ organizing efforts in the city are building a new collective-bargaining model. Importantly, the Seattle legislation and organizing effort encompasses all for-hire drivers, including not just rideshare service cars but also regular cabbies working as independent contractors. Although the incipient App-Based Drivers Associations are just gearing up, they’ve also established independent organizations in California and Washington state. Parallel organizing efforts in California have helped craft legislative proposals to enable groups of at least ten contract drivers to form a collective bargaining unit within a firm.

Some labor advocates have gone even further, envisioning Uber as a platform-based worker cooperative. Given that many Uber drivers have managed to organize themselves on social media platforms casually, a more structured institution could enable otherwise atomized “contractors” to communicate, organize and perhaps even stage a work stoppage. A few newly launched ventures, including  Green Taxi worker coop in Denver and Newark's TransUnion Car Service, have coopted the on-demand app-based model to innovate, from the left, worker-owned and worker-managed enterprises with local union support.

The Center for Family Life in Brooklyn, for example, has been developing worker coops in which low-wage, irregular workers such as senior home health aides, dog walkers, and domestic workers—the folks who did gig work before Silicon Valley coopted the term—can work on app-based platforms that promote decent labor standards and payscales. The group is working with progressive coders on “coopify,” a platform that seeks to provide a hiring hall-like hub to match cooperative workers with clients for sustainable, steady work.

Sarah Leberstein of the National Employment Law Project (NELP) says that by putting on-demand service workers at the controls, the system “would be a nice counterpoint to the venture capitalists ... These would really enable the workers to set their own standards and to share equally in the profits that their labor is generating, instead of having all of the profits go to the company that is in charge of deciding how much it pays the workers.

NELP's framework of basic principles for transforming on-demand jobs into good jobs starts with classifying workers as long-term W-2 employees, rather than 1099ers. Some on-demand workplaces are already shifting toward this model after realizing that in order to effectively offer specialized services, they need stability and predictability for their workforce. Both Eden, a boutique firm providing specialty office maintenance and support, and Managed By Q, which provides custodial services to small scale start-up companies, have recently expanded with a W-2 system, based on the rationale that providing reliable service using highly trained professionals is much harder amid high turnover or without a staff that operates on consistent schedules.

As full-fledged permanent hires, workers gain both stability and flexibility, including more equitable wage structures and a fairer share of the massive revenues of the brands under which they labor, and benefits like paid leave time, insurance benefits and healthcare, along with union rights that can build a secure career track for individual workers.

The promise of a “flexible” economy was to achieve a seamless balance of work, life and community. That’s also the ethos behind workplace organizing. So why not give workers ultimate control over both their workplaces and their communities—and in turn, let them be masters of their economic futures?

Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the "Belabored" podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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