On January 13, 2019, Smiley participated in a panel discussion entitled “Black People vs Robots” organized by Data for Black Lives, an organization focused on the use of data in ways that affect Black communities.1 She laughed at the image the title evoked—square cardboard-box robots chasing Black people out of buildings. But behind the catchy title was a truly important topic—the challenges of automation and its disproportionate impact on communities of color.
Technological change has been a constant thread in the history of human development. But to hear any cable news network talk about it, you would think it was a new development unique to the last twenty years. What is more, most people seem to assume that automation and the shifts it is producing in how work is organized will bring dire consequences for working people. As scholars Martin Carnoy and Derek Shearer put it, “At times, technology appears to control our society, to have an independent existence and to dictate society’s living patterns.”2
This sounds like a very up-to-date diagnosis, does it not? But Carnoy and Shearer wrote this in their book Economic Democracy: The Challenge of the 1980s, first published in 1981. And they went on to explain that this fear of technology is actually misguided, writing:
But this is a popular misconception fostered by those who actually control technology—the large corporations.… The daily lives of all of us are affected by “scientific progress”—by the development of new products such as the automobile, the computer, and the television set to name a few of the more dramatic examples. A price is frequently paid for this progress: a social cost that corporate capitalism passes along to society itself. With automobiles came greater mobility, but pollution and traffic jams also resulted; with computers came instant calculation and better planning for enterprises, but invasion of privacy, centralized credit, and other dossier systems also became more feasible; with television came instantaneous global communication and in-home mass entertainment, but the decline of social interaction outside the home and invasion of the home by commercial advertising accompanied the new technology.3
Carnoy and Shearer, writing almost four decades ago, were right, and their message is still relevant today. The fact is that computerization and artificial intelligence do not represent the gravest threat to our future. The greatest threat is the concentration of wealth and power by those who do not want a future where working people have an equal and democratic role in governing.
So, when we think about new technology and the changing nature of work, the important question to ask is simply, “Who benefits?” Do the applications of new technology and shifts in the organization of work speed up the concentration of wealth into the hands of a tiny select few while exploiting working people and/or destroying the climate? Or do they allow working people to benefit through increased resources, more time for recreation, and nonlabor activities while providing sustainable practices that allow human life to survive and adapt to growing shifts in the climate?
Again, automation will create wealth. Will that wealth be used to create more productive jobs and useful things? Will it be invested to build a society with opportunity and economic mobility? Or will it be used merely to generate more wealth for those who already own a dominant share of the world’s resources? Who will see a bump in their paycheck? And who will lose a job?
Fundamentally, it is not the future of work that causes concern but the future of working people within it. Technological change holds important implications for workers and the labor movement. Yet too many current discussions accept as inevitable a future in which jobs will be scarce and a firmly entrenched wealthy elite will set our priorities. Such conversations narrow the range of social vision to the question of how to ensure that the citizens of the future simply get enough to survive.
What is more, these discussions tend to be dominated by the thinking of the very CEOs, financiers, and consultants who are engineering changes in the workplace. And even as they tighten their grip, these architects of inequality seek to control the alternatives we envision for our future. In recent years, they have promoted fevered “future of work” scenarios that imagine the disappearance of jobs before sweeping waves of automation and artificial intelligence, hyping up visions of the future of work that place capital’s needs at the center. They suggest the inevitability of even greater levels of inequality. But is what they envision really inevitable?
These discussions of the future distract us all from the real relations of power at play. They move us too quickly into policy debates that do not address these dynamics or the economic and political trends that have hurt working people.
Let us take the early policy debates around universal basic income (UBI) as an example. Some saw the idea that government should guarantee UBI to people victimized by technological unemployment as a humane solution. But absent from this original policy proposal was the idea of granting working people the ability to negotiate their own conditions. And done poorly, a UBI could actually let large corporations off the hook by putting the burden on the state and the taxpayers instead of those with the most extreme wealth in the country. Alarmed at the prospect of such an explosion of government spending, some swung to a different solution, advocating steps to stop new technology at all costs and leading with slogans like the Luddite “Smash the Machines” and the more modern “Stop the Robots.”
Arguments like these were mere distractions unconnected from the lived experience of real workers. Fortunately, in recent years the debate has become more nuanced, recognizing some of the deeper underlying realities that need to be addressed.
Rampant automation and job loss are not the problem. By 2019, the United States had added fourteen million jobs after the Great Recession. The challenge is that many of those jobs were not good jobs, and many working people could not qualify for the few good jobs that were being created. We are experiencing employment polarization. On the one hand, there is a set of highly paid, highly educated professionals doing interesting work; on the other hand, there is a large number of people in low-paid jobs whose primary responsibility is to see to the comfort of the affluent.
Ultimately, new technology itself is not good or bad. What shapes the impact of technological developments is in fact the values of the people inventing, proposing, and implementing them. When working people can insert themselves directly into the processes of designing, adopting, and governing new technologies and shifting the organization of work, the result will be overwhelmingly positive for much larger groups of people.
Automation and the Future of Jobs
Automation has become an umbrella term for those projecting the inevitable loss of jobs from new technology and is thus a fear tactic used against working people to prevent them from organizing unions. But this is not a new trend. Scholars like historian Donna Murch have explained the role played by the introduction of mechanical cotton pickers in the Great Migration, in which left the rural South for urban areas in the West and North.4 Murch argues that while a complex set of factors, including the push of Southern racism and the pull of wartime jobs, touched off the migration, agricultural automation accelerated it. As Black workers began to leave, big farmers turned to machines to fill their labor shortage. Few descendants of enslaved Black workers are sad about the development of the cotton gin and other tools that decreased the agricultural industry’s reliance on enslaved individuals toiling on large plantations. However, many descendants of those same individuals are still waiting for their forty acres and a mule—that is, their piece of the profits generated by their labor and the increased productivity generated by new technology.
Automation has long been introduced in ways that perpetuate inequality and racism. Stephen Pitts, while a professor at the University of California–Berkeley noted the effect of automation in the 1950s and 1960s on manufacturing and its specific impact on Black workers. “What manufacturing outfits survived,” Pitts writes, “began to relocate operations out of the urban core. So, at the exact moment that the civil-rights movement was opening up industrial unions and jobs, many factories were closing in the places where Black people were forced to live. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, that meant factories closing in Oakland only to reopen in the (nearly) all-White suburbs to the south.”5
But despite the many horror stories, all forms of automation are not inherently bad. Increasing productivity through automation and new technologies can be beneficial. And workers who had bargaining power from the 1940s to the 1970s, when the growth of productivity was fast, enjoyed increases in wages and in work benefits such as paid time off and retirement income. Automation has helped to improve some jobs and eliminated some dangerous ones.
In recent decades, workers who have managed to maintain the power to engage in mass action to level the playing field when negotiating with employers have successfully bargained around new technology, turning it into a source of increased benefits for workers.
According to Carl Rosen of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE), workers at Allen-Bradley Automation in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, were able to negotiate benefits as the company was adapting to new technologies between 1998 and 2010. One of the core issues won at the bargaining table was increased opportunity for workers with seniority to be trained for any new jobs created in the plant due to new technologies. Another was the creation of apprenticeship programs in higher-skilled trades, which were made available to people whose jobs were being eliminated. This was particularly important for women, who tended to have lower-skilled jobs with less pay and who were at risk of having their jobs eliminated. Through bargaining the union was able to make sure these women got trained for pathways to high-skilled jobs. Ultimately this helped to diversify higher-skilled jobs for more women and people of color. The union was also able to create balance between the elimination of jobs and the creation of new jobs. When the company announced plans to close the plant due to technological change, the union negotiated the pace of job elimination to ensure people could retire rather than simply lose their source of income. By the time the plant closed in 2010, all the workers received full pensions.
In this case, management at Allen-Bradley Automation bargained in good faith and valued the input of the union. Unfortunately, only a tiny portion of workers have been able to turn automation into a success for workers—in large part because they do not have the ability to organize and collectively bargain as the Allen-Bradley workers did. Not surprising, most of the workers that do have some control over the introduction of new technology live and work in states that are still able to access twentieth-century forms of bargaining and political power. Whether automation will benefit or hurt workers depends on whether workers develop the economic power to negotiate over it in other parts of the country.
Profile of a Modern Worker: Jeff Crosby: “We Have to Build the Power We Need”
Unlike Allen-Bradley, General Electric forgot the value of negotiating with its own employees in ways that could benefit both the company and the workforce. Jeff Crosby, a veteran labor activist and a sophisticated organizer, recounts how GE opened its Factory of the Future, rejecting union proposals aimed at enhancing worker skills. The failure of the Factory of the Future illustrates how self-destructive it is for corporations to ignore human rights and workers’ interests in pursuit of short-term gains.
I worked at the General Electric (GE) plant in Lynn, Massachusetts, for thirty-three years. I was twenty-eight when I started in 1979. It was my first regular union job. My wife and I wanted to start a family, so I just wanted to get an actual job with a stable income. I could plan a life. There was a grinder’s job open, which is what I was doing at the time at another plant, although I was doing tool-cutter grinding. This was a different kind of grinding. I was sent to the foreman who asked, “Do you know how to work to tenths?” I had no idea what he meant. So, I said, you mean tenths of an inch? And he started laughing. He actually meant ten thousandth of an inch, which you can’t even see. I mean, that’s how you know you’re working with aircraft engines. It’s really precise.
I had no idea what I was doing. But I got in there and I showed up every day and worked really hard. As long as you were making an effort, the older folks would take care of you and help you out. So, you know, I kind of got carried until I knew what I was doing.
At the beginning, I was just keeping my mouth shut and learning the job. I worked third shift for two years, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., trying to figure out how to sleep. And then we had two kids. And so I was trying to deal with small children while shifts were changing and Margie, my wife, was working full time at the post office. We were pretty busy.
Thinking back on how I got there, when I was ten or eleven years old, I spent a couple of years in Pakistan. My dad was a World War II vet. After the war, he stayed in the Reserves and taught at the US Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs for a few weeks each summer. Then he was asked to go to Pakistan for two years as they were setting up their air force academy. We were in the Northwest Frontier near the Khyber Pass on the Afghanistan border. There were no other Americans in the town except for one missionary couple.
I was exposed to drastic poverty. There was one time we stopped to see these nomadic people of a different ethnic group. I don’t know who they were. We stopped our Volkswagen bus and my dad got out to take some pictures and this guy yelled out doe annas, which was like four cents. I think it was the smallest monetary measure at the time. My dad said “sure” to the guy. And people started coming out. I mean, my memory is it was hundreds of people asking for money, for four cents.
I went to a missionary school, and we were the only government kids. The school had me all day long. I was reading the Bible at 7 a.m. I remember they asked me if I wanted to go to Heaven and rest in the bosom of Jesus for the rest of my life or go to everlasting Hell. I was like, simple choice, and these were nice people. So, I got deeply religious after that.
You see the world a little bit differently after you’ve lived in a developing country. Plus, it was right in the middle of the Cold War. It was coming back from that experience having been exposed to drastic poverty in Pakistan and running into people who hated us there that changed me. I was eleven and I remember being impressed by the hypocrisy of this country that said it was a Christian country. At the time, I was pretty devout. Civil rights struggles were on the TV every day. It was the fall of 1962, and I started seeing Black people get blasted off the steps of white churches with fire hoses. I remember Dr. King at some point saying that 10 a.m. on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in the United States. So, I kind of drifted away from religion and started focusing on political activism.
In high school, I got active in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), not doing anything dramatic, just stuffing envelopes or whatever was needed in a church basement in Cambridge, Massachusetts. My wife Margie and I met as kids, and she was also involved with SNCC. We both signed up for civil rights school, and we went to Bricks, North Carolina, with a racially mixed group of Black and white kids from Newton and Roxbury, Massachusetts. Bricks is in rural North Carolina and was a place for training by Black organizations.
One day we went into the nearby town. It was like the whole town just stopped and everybody knew who we were—we stood out. There was so much hatred, it was palpable. And some of the kids just started crying. Then I just realized, my God, there is a whole other world here. We interviewed sharecroppers, because back then it was still mostly sharecropping, and that had an impact on me. SNCC just blew my mind—these kids were so brave, and they were getting killed.
I got increasingly politicized. The maids in McComb, Mississippi, were getting paid sixty-six cents an hour. There was a protest at the Ramada Inn in Lynn, Massachusetts, to support the maids, which I went to. In high school I helped form what we called the Human Rights Club. We did stuff like Draft resistance. I took part in Vietnam Summer, knocking on doors and neighborhoods and talking to people about the war. And I went to the demonstration called From Dissent to Resistance in DC. We marched on the Pentagon. That was the first time I ever saw the Eighty-Second Airborne with fixed bayonets deployed against the US population. I mean, I don’t remember seeing any violence or anything, but I saw that and it had an impact on me.
I worked in a local roofing factory in Watertown, Massachusetts, in the summers and on college vacations. It was a brutal job, catching the hot shingles as they came off a huge tar-and-slate stamping machine. It was nonstop and it paid cash by the day. I was young and it didn’t bother me much. The workers had been promised things like a fifteen-minute break every hour and a new pair of gloves every week, since the slate on the shingles ate through your gloves and skin. The promises were given to defeat a UAW union drive, but after the union was defeated the promises became memories.
I went to college at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. The antiwar demonstrators were getting tear-gassed and the campus was shut down a number of times. It’s hard to overstate the constant level of activity and tension on the campus. I was mainly organizing against the war and for civil rights. It’s all I did every day. I would only occasionally go to class, so I didn’t exactly have a stellar academic career. But I studied a lot, just not very systematically. I realized that I didn’t really think I needed to go to school. I was going to learn everything on my own and learn everything in the streets.
I dropped out of school and began to work. I cleaned out laundromats, worked on the docks as a longshoreman in Milwaukee for a while, and then worked on the railroad for a summer. Working on the docks and on the railroad was hard work. They were both unionized jobs although I did not get into the union on the docks because I did not get enough hours of work to qualify. They both paid well. At that time, those were the best jobs I’d ever worked.
By the time I got back to Massachusetts I knew I was looking for a union job. I got active in the union early. I knew GE had a great union—the International Union of Electrical Workers (IUE) Local 201—with a long history. I knew how important it was because of the experience I had growing up.
My plant in Lynn has a really long history, as does the city. I’d come to meet all these people whose family were shoe workers. There was a large shoe strike in 1860. It was the biggest strike in the country at the time. These were folks whose family or grandparents were in the American Revolution, and they saw that wealth was developing and really resented it. It was also the beginning of the end of artisan work, you know, where people were working in the home. In the factories, work was being sped up due to changes in the mode of production. I started realizing that as shoe factories were dying out, there was close to an eighty-year period where people migrated into GE and brought that militancy of the strike with them. Local 201 was always one of the most militant locals in the GE chain.
One of the first things I did in the union at GE was form a new technology committee.
When I was a kid there was the threat of transistor radios, and that they were going to revolutionize everything and put everybody out of work or everyone was going to work only twenty hours a week, which oddly never happened. Jobs change. Without power, it doesn’t matter what we think and what we know; no one’s asking us. So, I formed the new technology committee so we could insert ourselves into the discussion.
Before I got involved, there were fights in the 1960s over what type of technology was going to happen and if the tech was going to automate metalworking as much as possible. There were two different types of automation, one of which would have left more control in the hands of the workers. The other was the numerically controlled stuff, which management eventually chose. Numerically controlled machines would mean more control by employers over the workforce, which was really about control for GE. There were fights over unskilled and semiskilled work and pay rates. There were fights over piece-rate work. The union went on strike at the turn of the century over piecemeal work and won, then again in the mid-sixties with the introduction of numerically controlled machines around pay rates. That strike put more pay in my and everybody else’s pocket because the other rates were all built off of what was won. So, I mean, fifty-plus years later, it’s still paying off. All of this happened before I got there.
In the early 1970s, they tried to expand numerically controlled machinery all throughout the plant. There was growing resistance in plants all over the country. There were wildcat strikes in large towns. You had the auto-plant revolts in Detroit. So, the industrial relations people in the company started thinking about how to introduce this new technology without a lot of resistance because, you know, their goal was to take it out of our hands completely. But machinists are pretty skilled people. I mean, back in the day there’s nothing you could do to these guys. The fight over pacing has gone on for 150 years, and we normally win.
The idea of the new technology committee was to educate union members on management’s plans for new technology and try to figure out what we were going to do about it. The goal was primarily to keep our skills in the workforce and maintain employment. We organized a new technology conference at Breed Junior High School, with about two or three hundred people. We also used it as a way to reach out to the United Electrical (UE) workers, another union which had not had a good relationship with the IUE going back to the Red-baiting of the 1950s. We brought in people from the Erie railroad locomotive plant and others. At the conference we reestablished our ties across all unions representing GE workers.
But, after some time on the committee, it just felt to me like, what’s the point of this? We could talk for days. Meanwhile we’re losing members, the plants are getting smaller, and they’re closing plants all over the country. We had no power. I mean, we could do certain things as a defensive measure, but nobody was asking us how we wanted to deal with numerically controlled machinery or automation. It was clear to me that we needed to organize both union and nonunion people to have the power to influence automation and new technologies.
In 1982, GE opened the Factory of the Future. They wanted to create a super-automated factory. If we didn’t agree, they kept telling us they would build it “in a cornfield in Kansas” and we would become obsolete. They put $42 million into some old buildings and built a highly automated plant, which brought us into negotiations. I was appointed as a witness member of the bargaining committee. We made a proposal to them to counter this idea of super-automation, which would only create a few skilled jobs for people who ran the machines. It required twenty-four-hour operation, which meant it created shift problems.
We made a separate proposal for what was called island production at the time. The idea was that the workers would learn multiple skills and follow parts as opposed to deskilling their work. Management rejected this idea. It was a classic bad decision on their part. Instead, they built one of the world’s most inflexible machining centers. The guys that worked there told me that the technology was pretty good, but it was built on massive orders for one or two parts. They couldn’t fit everything in there. Whereas in island production, you can adjust the machines to do almost anything. This Factory of the Future was meant to make money based on massive orders of a few parts, but they didn’t get them. So, the whole thing was a white elephant, and they closed it in 1992.
Of course, in large corporations like GE, nobody ever makes mistakes. There was never any public admission that this did not work. They just closed it and sold it. It’s a supermarket now.
That kind of experience made me skeptical of the popular notion that technology will come, everybody will be out of work, and we’re all going to starve. Automation degrades work, and if you don’t have any power to integrate pay and working conditions, it is a problem. But it doesn’t have to be.
Over time the company actually came around to our way of thinking. So now we have something called the special machinist, which has its own classification and pay rate. These are multiskilled people who run a bunch of different machines, and they can follow one part from machine to machine instead of making massive numbers of the same part with the highly automated technology. So, the skill goes into the worker, not the machine. Turns out workers are more flexible than machines.
Through our negotiations we were able to create this new classification. We had the power to do it. There’s nothing in the technology that determines what its value is on the market or what your labor is worth. It’s a question of power in terms of what kind of choices are made in technology. Even more fundamentally, it’s a question of power that determines how it impacts us even on a simple thing like our hourly wage.
I do believe that power at the workplace is fundamental. And, you know, the recent teacher strikes kind of reminded people of that, including in places where they do not have the right to collective bargaining. I think for working-class people to have power, they have to have some identity. If we are to believe what we’re told in the United States, there’s just a big “middle class” and then there are those at the top, the supposed job creators, and those on the very bottom. There are “poor folks,” which is racially coded language, and they live off the mostly white “middle class” who work. That’s what many people actually think, and it’s really pervasive.
Most people don’t aspire to govern and certainly have no experience in it. Unions can give you that. One of the things we’re trying to do here in Lynn is push ourselves to create pathways to power. Through my work at the Labor Council, we try to facilitate this. When we passed the anti–wage theft policy, we knew the city didn’t have capacity, that there’s no money. The city can’t hire anybody to enforce it. And so we wrote ourselves into it as an advisory committee. We’re going to enforce it ourselves. We have a committee that includes the Worker Center, the Labor Council, the Building Trades, the Latino Business Association, the New Lynn Coalition, and the Chamber of Commerce. It’s our job to help people file complaints and to track them and all that.
Another thing we did is with the school committee. We passed a motion that union teachers should be trained in how to deal with undocumented kids and the kind of traumas that they deal with when they don’t know if their folks are going to be there when they get home. We worked directly with our labor council members. A year later, after realizing this motion was not acted on, we went to the school department and offered to design the training and process. And then our members went to some of the trainings. It’s still happening.
I worked at GE for thirty-three years, and I have been a union guy all my life. Now I’m talking about school foundation budgets, affordable housing policies, and all sorts of things that I didn’t know anything about. Without power it doesn’t matter what we think and what we know, no one’s asking us. We have to build the power we need.
Data Ownership: Who Controls Information about You?
In the era of apps, gadgets, and athletic wearables, working people are confronted with individuals and companies that seek data on their behaviors, practices, and other characteristics. Once upon a time, most data were collected after people were asked if they wanted to participate in a survey or some other form of data collection. But today, new technologies often allow that data to be automatically generated and stored. In this new era, new questions arise: Who owns that data? Are working people obligated to generate the data? And how do you address the ongoing issue of privacy?
In chapter 6 we saw how the educators in West Virginia had to fight against the forced use of this type of data collection, especially insofar as such private data could be used to limit their health-care options. Without traditional collective bargaining, the teachers still face repeated attempts by the state legislature to force these practices on them. Those with access to twentieth-century collective bargaining systems have had more success.
Perhaps most widely known is the role of data and analytics in sports.6 An entire industry has developed to measure every aspect of an athlete’s behavior that might affect his or her performance—data that can then be used to move players around or even end their contracts and potentially their careers. Companies that make wearables and other products to collect data like to present these products as helpful tools for players to analyze their own performance and stay healthy. But how those data are used by the leagues or shared with the public is a source of a lot of debate, both publicly and in negotiations between players and their employers.
The unions that represent athletes have taken different approaches to ensure players have control over the data they generate. The National Football League Players Association (NFLPA) signed an agreement giving ownership of Fitbit-like data analytics to players, an agreement signed directly with the company (WHOOP) who makes the wearables. The NFLPA may have leveraged this mostly because the NFL requires players to wear Zebra tracking chips and other devices under their shoulder pads as a part of their collective bargaining agreement. The National Basketball Players Association’s (NBPA) collective bargaining agreement with the NBA gives them the ability to opt out of wearables, though they do not necessarily own their data if they opt in. And there has been talk of banning all such devices until an NBA committee on data can explore the issue further. Major League Baseball (MLB) also allows players to opt in to data collection, and they prohibit the data from being used in salary arbitration discussions. However, minor league players are forced to wear data-collecting devices, and in some instances the analytics collected hurt their ability to get into the major leagues.7
Beyond professional sports, employers and policy-makers often use this kind of data to make broad, sweeping policy decisions that negatively impact entire communities of people. And they do it under the myth that the algorithms created are somehow objective. One of the more egregious examples of this occurred when Black residents in and around Dallas, Texas, and several other cities realized that Amazon Prime was systematically denying them free same-day delivery despite providing it for wealthier white communities—including some right down the street from them. While the company said the algorithms that led to this were not racialized, they were in fact based on data collected over many years that systemically marginalized and devalued Black and Brown communities. As Preston Gralla noted in Computer World, Amazon’s algorithm “produced a racist outcome because the data on which it was based was the result of decades of widespread racism.”8
Like automation and any new technology, data-collection mechanisms and uses are not inherently bad. But if the people implementing them do not have the best interests of the majority of working people at heart, their effects can be invasive and damaging. This, again, is why having those directly impacted at the table—through collective bargaining or any other democratic channel—is critical to ensure accountability in data collection with benefits for the whole of society, not just the wealthy few.
The Rise of the Gig Economy
For the past few years we have been inundated with rosy books and articles about the gig economy.9 They feature vignettes of people working flexible hours to pick up extra cash: the graduate student who drives for Uber in her spare time, the stay-at-home parent who brings in extra spending money with EasyShift, the high school student picking up odd jobs on TaskRabbit. Whether it is being praised as the newest innovation in work-life management or as a massive new industry that will displace traditional work relationships, the gig economy is widely touted as the latest great phase of modern work.
If this were actually true, we would praise the dawn of a new era—especially one where, for once, more people could have access to equal parts work, rest, and recreation. But this trend is actually just a collection of familiar exploitative business practices repackaged as a positive twenty-first-century development. Technology is brilliant and enables scale, but too often new technologies have just scaled or amplified long-standing problems rather than disrupting them, shifting inequities entrenched offline to the new online platforms. So far, it has been optimized for efficiency and convenience for the employer, but we believe that it can be optimized for equity for everyone.
Gig-economy business models serve the interests of their investors and shareholders at the expense of their workers. What we have learned from workers who work on gig-economy platforms is that this notion defines everything: the work conditions, structures, policies, and compensation. What this means for platform workers is the following:
- They are managed by an algorithm and rarely able to talk to a live person,
- Customer ratings can determine their pay,
- They are penalized for canceling a job even if they felt unsafe,
- There is little transparency regarding the policies, protocols, data collection, and surveillance.
- They have no access to their own data, which means they cannot take their experience or reviews from one gig-economy platform elsewhere.
Under the guise of innovation, the gig companies are reinforcing the same pernicious dynamics that working people have faced for generations—twenty-first-century Taylorism.10 Companies lure workers by projecting their apps as the new fast way to achieve the American Dream of being your own boss. The problem is that these so-called self-employed entrepreneurs have very little autonomy. They are not setting their prices or their schedules; sometimes they cannot even choose what car they drive. The company maintains control over those decisions.
A 2020 study of gig workers commissioned by the San Francisco Local Agency Formation Commission and conducted by the Institute for Social Transformation at the University of California—Santa Cruz bears this out. For example, the study found that platform companies providing services like rideshare and food delivery frequently withdraw work offers, threaten workers with deactivation, and reduce their bonuses when they decline specific job offers—something workers are supposed to have the freedom to do under California law.11 In September 2019, the California State Legislature passed Assembly Bill 5, which was aimed at including gig workers in protections designated for employees.
There is only one situation in which gig companies are willing to cede control to individual workers: when something goes wrong and someone needs to be held accountable. In those cases gig companies try to minimize their relationship with their workers. This is particularly clear in two recent lawsuits against Uber. In the first case, two women attempted to hold Uber accountable for the sexual harassment they experienced from a driver.12 The company claimed the driver was an independent contractor—not an employee—and thus Uber was not liable. In the second case, workers sued the company for mileage and tip reimbursements that they currently have to cover themselves.13 Again, the company argued that the workers are not employees—and that making them employees would undermine their business model by damaging driver flexibility and adding too many costs.
Classifying workers as independent contractors is key to many gig companies’ strategies because gig workers are paid the same as or less than formal employees and receive significantly fewer benefits such as health care, paid sick leave, or workers’ compensation for injuries.14 And at the end of the day, gig companies’ goals are the same as always: to keep their costs low while maximizing profits.
In 2018, the California Supreme Court took an important step toward limiting corporate executives’ ability to misclassify individuals who are actually employees. In the Dynamex decision, the court implemented a basic A, B, C smell test, noting that a person is an independent contractor only if they (A) are free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of work, (B) regularly perform work outside of the hiring entity’s business, and (C) are engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.15
Again, legislators took this even further with the passage of California Assembly Bill 5, which limited the use of classifying workers as independent contractors rather than employees by companies in the state. Employees were entitled to greater labor protections such as minimum wage laws, sick leave, and unemployment and workers’ compensation benefits that do not apply to independent contractors. The law codified a stricter set of requirements than laid out in the Dynamex decision. This bill was overturned in November 2020 by Proposition 22, a ballot initiative heavily funded by gig companies.
Rideshare drivers also made gains during the COVID-19 pandemic given their status as “essential workers,” ultimately winning the right to claim unemployment benefits when laid off. This victory took them one step closer in their fight against misclassification as independent contractors, thus expanding their protections under labor laws. Again, it was quickly subdued by the passage of California’s Proposition 22 ballot initiative, which excluded many app-based workers from foundational labor laws.
In August 2021, the Alameda Superior Court of California ruled that Proposition 22 violated the California constitution and must be struck down in its entirety. While the decision will likely be appealed by the app-based companies, the decision represents a huge setback for companies who have been trying to rewrite U.S. labor laws and exempt themselves from labor standards that apply to all other employers. The decision also represents an important advancement in the gig-worker-led movement for employment benefits, fair wages, worker protections, and the right to exercise collective democratic power.
The gig economy is sold to workers as a type of empowerment, but the actual jobs are designed to hold them back. Flexibility for workers does not automatically gel with the on-demand needs of company executives. In fact, what working people want—and what the gig economy rarely provides—is more control of their time on the job. They want to shape decisions and redesign their jobs to meet the company and their personal needs. Both parties need room to negotiate conditions.
Unsurprisingly, gig executives militantly combat workers who attempt to form unions. Again, Uber is an illustrative example. When Seattle granted its drivers the right to unionize, the company instructed its customer service reps to call through a list of drivers to explain why unionizing was a bad idea (a spokesperson defended the practice in a statement, saying “it’s not clear a traditional union can serve such a large and varied group of people.”)16 The company also has a history of deactivating—gig-speak for firing—drivers who lead unionizing efforts.17 Uber’s major competitor, Lyft, has been accused of similar tactics. (Spokespeople for both companies have denied the allegations.)18 New York University (NYU) professor Aswath Damodaran explained that unions will ultimately hurt these companies’ bottom lines, saying “they are likely to shake up the current revenue-sharing balance.”19 In other words, union workers get more of the total share, and that makes executives nervous. For them, it pays to keep gig workers from organizing.
So, while the gig economy is upon us, it is far from the worker-empowering revolution that companies are marketing and far less sizable.
However, workers at many gig companies are experimenting with different ways to negotiate over their conditions, from Seattle to New York to overseas.20 They are proving that the only thing inevitable about the gig economy is that, as with business innovations of the past, working people will eventually figure out how to organize app-based and gig companies. These workers are designing a new generation of labor protections that will not only benefit workers at gig companies but also help to protect the interests of all part-time, temporary, or subcontracted employees.
The menacing reality just under the surface of discussions about new technology is the tension between fear and hope. When people live in fear of a thing, they immediately go into fight or flight mode, just trying to be safe. But when new technology is seen as something hopeful, something that was negotiated well with everyday people at the table, then solutions beyond our wildest imaginations may surface to address the needs of society, and most important, the humans within it. Only when workers and their allies create vehicles capable of challenging concentrated economic and political power can we hope to shape the work of the future in ways that benefit us all.
Because at the end of the day, it is all about choices. Nothing is inevitable except change—which is why we must take every step we can to ensure that we claim the power to make the big decisions that will shape the changes that impact our lives in the years to come. The Future we need.