Monday, January 25, 2016

"The Sharing Economy Is Labor’s Next Hope"

From The New Republic:
When Uber, Lyft, Handy, and a handful of other companies funded by venture capital began earning huge amounts of money after investing in the informal economy, it was because they understood a simple equation. In exchange for providing the name, job site, and payment for a given task—automated through a proprietary algorithm—an independent contractor would agree, in turn, to provide a service and hand over a sometimes-sizeable commission for the privilege of working. On quick inspection, the math works out: At-will workers earn extra money through a simple system that rewards flexibility, and the VC-funded concerns keep costs low by technically not employing laborers. Broadly speaking, then, the sharing economy is just a technologically sophisticated update of the barter economy.

This would all make sense, if the companies weren’t stepping into already-familiar territory for workforce agencies—like home-care service providers and livery services—and, by extension, into the middle of a burgeoning labor movement led by the independent contractors themselves. For decades, laborers in these fields have been organizing and sharing information with one another; the result is a consolidated push for better treatment, like new labor protections in standard contracts. When Uber and its ilk entered the market, they unwittingly gave the laborers—who now felt themselves maligned by bad labor practices—just what they needed to galvanize their organizing efforts: a shared boss.

The informal economy—which refers to sectors not regulated by the state, and here I want to highlight domestic workers, taxi drivers, and repair people—have long operated in conditions that fluctuate depending on who employs them. But laborers in these fields have scored several recent accomplishments in states across the country, including the establishment of a minimum wage for their work, overtime, and break time. Still, even with these protections, the informal economy is rife with deplorable conditions: Workers are not always paid, they are not guaranteed paid vacation time, and have no job security of any sort. For many of them there still isn’t a larger organization to connect to, a standard contract to refer to, or even the luxury of taxed earnings to sue for. On top of that, the workers are isolated from one another, unable to compare wages or discuss treatment. That changed when Uber showed up.

“I met other domestic workers on a daily basis at the playground, and it was there that we began talking about our conditions,” said Barbara Young, who has worked as a nanny in New York City for 17 years. For the past eight years she’s been an organizer at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which has been working since 2007 to better conditions for domestic workers and help pass laws that protect them. “The other women at the park showed me the labor laws that we were excluded from, and how the abuse that was happening to a lot of us at our jobs was because of this exclusion.” (Taxi drivers, too, have their own organizations—like the New York Taxi Alliance—that advocate publicly on their behalf.) 
Besides the parks where nannies met and the garages where taxi drivers could congregate and discuss fares (and before cheap access to the Internet), there weren’t many opportunities for workers in the informal economy to connect with one another and organize for better conditions. Slowly, however, through community groups, online forums, and general awareness of similar conditions, workers began to make their sector a whole lot less informal. After the rise of Uber, Lyft, Handy, Instacart, and other online services, informal workers now had central authorities they could fight in the open with the organizing power they’d been building for years. In the process of disrupting informal parts of the economy, the startups had created an even larger worker pool than previously existed, with a much greater appreciation and understanding of exactly how badly they were getting ripped off. And that’s where the monster these startups have created becomes a real problem.

“More and more, Uber drivers feel like they’ve been betrayed by the company because the rates have dropped by so much, or drivers have gotten banned from the service because they wouldn’t do a fist bump, or other silly things. They’ve been banned from the services for things that you normally wouldn’t be able to lose your jobs over,” said Dawn Gearheart, an organizer for Teamsters Local 117 in Washington State, which has become closely affiliated with the App-Based Drivers Association, a group that “promotes fairness, justice, and transparency in Seattle’s personal transportation industry.” Started in 2013 by drivers who felt their rights were being violated by both Uber and Lyft, the association scored its largest victory in December, when it pushed a bill through the Seattle City Council that will allow Uber and Lyft drivers to unionize and collectively bargain with the startups....MORE
Probably unrelated:
"When there's no other dude in the car, the cost of taking an Uber anywhere becomes cheaper than owning a vehicle. So the magic there is, you basically bring the cost below the cost of ownership for everybody, and then car ownership goes away."
-Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, May 28, 2014

And this morning, from re/code:
Lyft President John Zimmer Is Going All-In on Self-Driving Cars
For some backstory on what's coming see "Alphaville's Izabella Kaminska Banned-" or a few of our posts that tried to touch on what Ms. Kaminska is writing about:

Seattle is first city in nation to give Uber, other contract drivers ability to unionize
What Uber Hath Wrought: The Coming Digital Labor Movement 
As Chicago Prepares an App For Taxis to Compete With Uber, Giant Union AFSCME is Organizing Cab Drivers
Watch Out Uber: National Labor Relations Board Interpretation Could Allow Many Taxi Drivers to Unionize
Dear Teamsters, United Auto Workers: Google Is Trying To Crush Your Unions and Your Members (GOOG)
"Avis and Hertz should launch their own Uber"
Why Upfront Ventures Invested in Disruptive Rental Car Startup Skurt