May 9, 2016
A VOICE FOR DIGITAL DAY LABORERS
What can Uber and other tech companies learn from a day laborer corner?
by Saket Soni
For centuries, migrants in search of work have arrived at street corners to offer their services as day laborers. These workers have always been an essential part of our economy, taking on some of the most important work projects in our country’s history, including, in recent years, the rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina. They did these daunting jobs one gig at a time, without the prospect of permanent, full-time work.
Throughout this history, workers have faced horrific exploitation. I remember showing up at the day labor corners in post Katrina New Orleans with organizers, to defend day labors from abuse. In the last few decades, in New Orleans and across the country, waves of day laborers who faced wage theft and racial discrimination have organized collectively for a voice in the analog gig economy.
Then the digital gig economy came along. Now, workers in search of short-term work don’t have to go to the day labor corner over by Home Depot. They can hop onto a platform through their smart phones. And the disruptive technology companies that created the digital gig economy are now turning their attention to worker organizing.
First, a few weeks ago, Airbnb — the home sharing app taking on the hotel industry — was reported briefly to be in conversations promoting a $15 minimum wage and the use of unionized house cleaners by hosts. That same day, Travis Kalanick, CEO of Uber — the ride sharing app destabilizing the taxi cab industry — wrote that the company will create drivers’ associations in California and Massachusetts “to discuss the issues that matter most to drivers” as part of the $84 million settlement in a class action lawsuit against the company.
There is growing consensus that workers in the new gig economy, like all workers, need to have a voice in shaping their working conditions — regardless of whether they are classified as independent contractors or direct employees. And workers need new models for building collective voice now that they are no longer gathering in classic workplaces from 9 to 5. In an era of rising inequality, this is especially urgent.
They can take a cue from the old day labor corner. People who arrive at work through digital platforms are today’s “digital day laborers” — workers who are hired day-by-day, task-by-task, without a stable, predictable job or a salaried income. The questions facing these workers are the same ones facing contingent workers in the analog gig economy. In the absence of a permanent job and a predictable workplace, how do you form a sustained organization that can bring your voice to companies and policy makers?
In recent times, contingent workers have formed hybrid entities called worker centers to disrupt inequality. This is not a new impulse: in the industrial age, millions of workers formed unions for the same reason. The social innovations of that time invented the middle class: the eight-hour workday, employer-provided benefits, and retirement security. Many of these solutions were the result of partnerships with companies that took the long view.
More recently, in the Hershey Chocolate Factory or on the Wal-Mart supply chain, contingent workers without an easy path to a union have used worker centers to advocate for better conditions. The common thread in these iterations of social innovation was the need for collective worker voice.
Companies are recognizing this. Uber even declared they would take the lead in organizing and directing their own worker association. It is safe to assume that sharing economy peers like Lyft, Handy, Instacart, and others are considering doing the same.
The good news is that there are models to build on and best practices to replicate — and mistakes to avoid. Four guiding principles will be key to the success of worker organization in the gig economy.
First, worker associations will work when they are independent: formed and led by workers. No one knows workers’ needs and priorities better than they do themselves. A worker association can balance its needs with the needs of companies for the mutual benefit of both sides — but only if workers have ownership over it.
Second, worker associations will need to deal with decisions that are truly important, not peripheral, to workers. In our experience, that means the association’s agenda should include workers’ daily, “bread and butter” concerns: issues like wages, health and safety, freedom of association, and control over their time.
Third, constructive tension is a good thing. If you are a gig economy executive reading this, and you feel uncomfortable at the idea of engaging with a worker association, good! Lean into it. A worker association with enough power to provoke constructive tension is the only kind of partner who can negotiate meaningful change.
Fourth, results will come when companies that form partnerships with robust, independent worker associations leverage the relationship for high-value returns that benefit workers, customers, and the bottom line. Negotiating for better workplace standards means more satisfied workers, who in turn better serve consumers, rewarding companies with leadership in their industry.
In the new economy, there is an urgent need for a new round of innovations to overcome inequality and address income volatility in order to reinvent the middle class. Worker voice will be as important as ever in making that happen. Tech companies will, in all probability, continue to rely on digital day laborers. Companies that can forge the partnerships with truly independent worker organizations for the right reasons have a lot to gain and a great deal to give.